In the summer of 2013 it became glaringly apparent that my two 2-year-olds were too lethal for a toddler pool, too loud for libraries, too unappreciative for any outing that cost money (museums, restaurants, stores … And don’t even get me started on the bouncy house place), and too dumb not to dart out in front of every other car that flew past our house.
We are blessed to live in a home that is sandwiched between a lake and a long dirt road that doubles as a speedway for the “summer people.” It’s an idyllic setting for toddlers with a death wish.
As I waited for the fence guy to show up to install barbed wire around the playhouse and scoured Amazon for “Slow Children” signs to perch at the edge of our property, it finally dawned on me … If they had the dexterity to climb over the baby gate half a dozen times before breakfast, the stamina to soldier crawl thirty-five feet beneath the deck to rescue fleets of matchbox cars, and the muscle to dig a three-foot moat across the beach, perhaps that energy could be better channeled into an activity that wouldn’t have me frantically Googling “pre-K boarding schools” as they were waking up from their naps.
My kids were incapable of being indoors for more than five minutes without head-butting each other or organizing a suicide bombing mission from the top of the sectional sofa. Compounding the problem was my recurring case of “stay-at-home-Momitis.” And, even though the fence guy did finally show up to transform our side yard into a modest-sized juvenile detention camp, I still felt like a bad mom watching them smoosh their faces against the locked French doors as they banged their tiny fists and shouted “Mommy, let us in. Pleeeease…”
With the multiple baby gates, door alarms, carseat/highchair/stroller buckles, Safety 1st door knob covers, deck gates, and fortified yard I was beginning to have serious concerns about whether the kids actually loved me or were simply suffering from Stockholm syndrome.
So began our self-guided tour of Berkshire Grounds for Play — kid-friendly hiking trails, playgrounds, swimming holes, and scenic spots for parents and kids without a dime in their pockets.
We are nearing the two-year anniversary of the start of our project. The kids are now seasoned hikers and playground aficionados. At last count we’ve explored seventy-eight trails and parks scattered throughout thirty-one Berkshire and Berkshire-bordering towns. And, though we still have a long wish-list of places we’d still like to explore, I have already cataloged enough hiking and play tips and pics to fuel this column for years to come (or until they start college).
When the idea for the column began to take shape, I became weirdly (like “Dance Mom”) obsessed with snapping Christmas-card-worthy pictures at each and every hiking trail and jungle gym, but then I started to equally obsess that some laid-back backpacker headed south along a remote stretch of the Appalachian Trail was going to report a lunatic yelling “Stop falling off that log and smile or Santa’s not going to bring you anything next Christmas!”
So, after the longest winter in this Berkshire Mom’s memory, I have since eased up on the militant photo sessions in favor of just getting outside and exploring the beautiful Berkshires. Besides, my kids are way too preoccupied with their new Lighting McQueen and Princess bikes to pose for pics. (They both finally mastered peddling forwards!) So, in an effort to meet them half way, I have been hitting the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail at least once a week. Our favorite, recently discovered, stretch runs adjacent to the Russell Street playground in Adams. (Super cute mini-bike rack, new/clean play structure, short walk to bathrooms and coffee in town, 4-bars of cell service … More on that soon.)
I thought it only fitting though to write my inaugural Berkshire Grounds for Play column about the Dorothy Frances Rice Forestry Preserve in Peru. It is the hike that kicked off our exploring adventure and it has since become one of our very favorite spots in the Berkshires (especially during apple picking season).
On that first trip, I thought I was a super-prepared, super-Mom. I packed a camera, one bottle of water, and six fig Newtons. The Newton’s were gone by the time I parked the car and my daughter promptly poured the entire bottle of water on a slug that she spotted after taking the very first sip. All ended well on our inaugural outing, but I lay awake that night plagued by the what-ifs (and the pressing issue of how quickly I could develop an iPhone app to scare off all of the known wild animals indigenous to Western Massachusetts). I needed to be better prepared. How could I possibly haul two 2-year-olds, two changes of clothes, anti-bacterial wipes, snacks, drinks, my cell, camera, bug spray, Benadryl, and a first aid kit into the woods without throwing my back out?
I thought back to those first few delusional years of marriage when our “baby” was our dog. I would waltz off into the woods with confidence, wholeheartedly believing that she could not only fend off a black bear or rabid raccoon, but also go for help Lassie-style if I fell and broke my ankle.
Lying there that night contemplating the frustrating intricacies of people parenting vs. pet parenting, I recalled the only take-away gained from the puppy training class that we took as “new parents.” The sage puppy Professor who led the class praised the use of the puppy pack, a backpack that could be loaded down with rocks, water bottles or construction debris to tire out and train an “over-active or disobedient” dog.
It only stood to reason that the same principles would apply to my children. So, I dug up some pint-sized backpacks, loaded em’ up, and we were in business!
The Dorothy Frances Rice Forestry Preserve is a 276-acre protected forestry and wildlife sanctuary in Peru, MA. Follow Route 143 straight up (literally) to the center of Peru, where you can’t miss the ginormous red and white weather tower, visible from as far away as Mt. Greylock. Across from the Peru Library, head toward the tower by turning onto South Rd. Follow the road until it forks sharply to the right. Straight ahead you will see the parking area and entrance gate to the preserve. Beyond the gate is Rice Road. It’s a wide dirt path, closed to vehicles but very stroller friendly if you’re worried about smaller kids making the return trek to the car.
Please Note: While hiking with kids you may feel that you are walking incredibly slow, and that you will still need to hit the elliptical when you get home, but keep in mind that the town of Peru has the highest mean altitude of any town in the Commonwealth (averaging over 2,043 feet above sea level). With all of the thin fresh air, you’re lungs are working harder so no need for any added cardio today!
As you make your way into the sanctuary, you will notice that the trees are marked with plaques identifying the type of tree and its woodland attributes. This alone is worth the trip, if you’re a Mom like me with only very basic tree knowledge; Birch Tree (white bark), Christmas Tree (pine needles & pine cones) or Oak Tree (the ones with acorns). I now have the solid science needed to both educate my kids and back my “ridiculously good deals” on purchases at Homegoods, Marshalls and TJs on patio furniture, mini picnic tables, and planter boxes.
A few dozen yards up the path, you can get a sneak peak of the smaller of the two ponds on the preserve, by stepping up the short path to the left when you hear the sound of running water. The ground is a little mushy if it’s been rainy, but it’s a nice photo op. Avoid the lure of the pastel painted arrows marking the other trails until you make it to the red cottage/ranger station/welcome center at the end of Rice Road (roughly a 1/4-mile) where you’ll also find a grouping of low benches, the preserve trail map, and a rustic wishing well (a kid favorite).
To the left is an apple tree grove with a picnic table in the center. After chance meetings with a forestry ranger with a roof rake and a neighboring farmer with a ladder, I learned the apples are “red delicious.” And, they are delicious and FREE! We now frequent the preserve in September and October with a cache of apple-haulin’ bags. (The kids also like to spend some quality time throwing rotten apples and pinecones down the well.)
Parenting Tip: When hiking with kids take a picture of the property map with your cell, just in case you get turned around or a 3-year-old challenges your sense of direction.
One thing I love about the Dorothy Frances Rice property is that regardless of your navigational abilities or map reading skills, every single trail measures one mile or less. So you can just pick a color and go, knowing it’ll circle back to where you started. I recommend the trails that circle past the “Pond.” The bench at the top of the “Pink” trail also offers an awesome (and rare) 180-degree view of the mountains below, and from late-August to mid-September it’s lined with wild blackberry bushes. (Extra parenting points for the organic-ness of it all.) Keep in mind though that the pink trail can be a little steep where it reaches the peak of the property and a little wet on the backside of the pond.
The preserve is dog-friendly (on a leash) and the Rice Road portion is accessible for snowshoeing, sled-hauling and cross-country skiing in the winter months.
Don’t forget to sign the guest book!