My first official Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) hike after being certified to co-lead was, ironically, called “My First AMC Hike.”
Bob, the experienced hike leader who had created the concept years before, agreed to resurrect it when I said it appealed to me. Designed to attract new people to hiking and to the benefits of AMC membership, “My First AMC Hike” was a two-part hike in the Blue Hills of Milton, MA.
Part I was basically flat, three miles around Houghton’s Pond and a bit of incline up to Tucker Hill to catch a view. No special gear required, just decent foot wear, a rain jacket, snacks and water.
Lots of water. When I started the trail talk at 9:15am on Saturday morning, it was already 75° and humid. The sun beat down hot enough for me to remember to slather my arms and face with sunscreen.
Bob had put in the information sheet we sent out to all participants ahead of time the little-known and unlikely fact that not only copperheads but rattlesnakes inhabit the Blue Hills. I’d encountered a rattler once in my life, out hiking in Sedona, AZ, off trail in popcorn rock, exactly where a hiker should never be. I was climbing up hand-over-hand and had just pulled myself onto a nice ledge when I heard that unmistakable sound.
If you’ve ever wondered if you’d recognize a rattlesnake’s rattle, trust me. It’s hard wired into the human brain. The guidebook to all the critters that could kill you in Sedona, AZ was emphatic about what to do when one encountered a rattler. Freeze. Locate the snake with your eyes. Back away slowly.
I did not locate the snake with my eyes. I did not back away slowly. I leapt off that ledge faster than a jack rabbit. My husband, who was coming up the mountain behind me was startled to see me scuttling back down. “You sure it was a rattlesnake?” he asked.
I gave him a look. “If you don’t believe me, go on up and find out for yourself.” I paused. “Just remember you’re too big for me to carry, so be sure it’s the last sight you want to see.”
The Trail Talk
AMC hikes always begin with a trail talk in which one of the leaders reminds everyone of the plan for the hike and sets out a few rules, like start together, stay together, end together.
I also gave the when-you-encounter-a-snake-that-could-kill-you instructions. Copperheads, I cautioned, were more aggressive than rattlers and often took a warning swipe at people who got too close. They cut the warning so fine that sometimes they broke the skin on someone’s leg and even that could be dangerous. “Don’t go closer to a snake to get a better view,” I said. “Don’t sneak up on it to see if it’s the dangerous kind. Don’t try to snap a picture. Just back away slowly.”
“Bob’s been hiking in the Blue Hills for 12 years and not only hasn’t he been bitten, he hasn’t even seen one of these snakes.” I wanted to put the risk in perspective.
I thought my first trail talk went reasonably well, but what do I know? The participants were all nice polite people.
Tracking 15 People
When one of the hikers acknowledged he liked maps, I asked him to go first with a copy of the map in hand and he graciously agreed. I hiked one or two people behind him, close enough to the front so I could keep an eye on the trail as well. Bob hiked toward the back of the pack so we could cover the whole long line of folks between us, and off we went.
The initial footing was easy, a path wide enough for four people abreast. As we left the perimeter of the pond, the trail narrowed some and roots showed from thousands of shoes and boots hiking the soil right off of them.
I’d expected to see a lot of other folks out walking on a weekend, but we encountered few other hikers. That was a good thing, in my book. It
was hard enough to make sure all the members of our group were still together. Eighteen people had signed up for the hike and 15 of them showed up.
There’s a lot to focus on as a hike leader besides not losing anybody and staying on the right trail. Some of our participants were beginning hikers. I tried to remember to remind everyone to drink. Were any of them getting hot spots on their feet, indicative of blisters-in-the-making? Did anyone need a bio-break? How was the pace—too fast, too slow, just right?
A hike is also a social event. I wanted to get to know each of the hikers at least a little bit so they felt welcomed and freer to say their feet hurt or they needed a break, and, besides, they were interesting to talk to. Sometimes it was hard to stop conversing to count heads.
Soon we arrived at the rocky trail, about two-tenths of a mile long, up to the top of Tucker Hill. Bob gave an encouraging speech about how everyone could hike up a steep hill, it just took time. He cautioned newer hikers not to expect to go as fast for the same output of energy up a hill. I added that many smaller steps were better for the joints and less tiring than fewer large steps. Up we went. Everyone did fine.
At the top was a lovely, if limited, view. We all admired it while we caught our breath. Bob pointed out the radio tower for Boston’s public radio station, WGBH, a mile-and-a-half west of us. One of the hikers, Steve, told us what the call letters stood for: Great Blue Hill. The tower perched atop the largest of the hills in the Reservation, Great Blue. I never knew that!
After Tucker Hill, the group naturally broke into two clusters, one faster and one slower, for part of the hike. Bob roamed from one to the other little group and, when he appeared, I’d head off to the other. That way we got to talk with and check on everyone.
At one point, Bob remembered that we’d forgotten to tell people to turn their cell phones off, always a good idea when you’re out enjoying nature. I had left mine on initially in case any of the participants who hadn’t shown up called me and then I’d forgotten it was on, so the reminder was a timely one.
We returned to our starting point on Houghton Pond and hunkered down in the shady grass for lunch. Bob dumped his pack out on the lawn and explained why he carried the various things he packed.
He shared with us a cool fact he’d learned from a scientist dedicated to improving gear for soldiers: turn your hiking socks inside out, so the fluffy part faces out. As the scientist said, “Have you ever seen a sheep, or any animal, wear their fur on the inside? Much better to disperse the heat and moisture if it’s facing out.”
Cynthia put on fresh socks turned inside out and said they felt like “an oasis of pleasure” between her feet and her boots. I can’t wait to try that myself. We said goodbye to those who were leaving and got ready for Part II of the hike.
For anyone who had managed Tucker Hill well enough and wanted more, we’d spend the next few hours going up and down three or four more hills, taking in Great Blue, the biggest hill and namesake of the Reservation, covering another four miles. Four hardy souls stayed on. We crossed the road and hiked up Houghton Hill, which seemed a fitting way to begin since our morning jaunt had begun with Houghton’s Pond.
When one member’s bootlaces kept coming untied, Bob offered up another golden nugget: Cheryl’s Magic Knot. (Not me Cheryl, another Cheryl from AMC’s Southeastern Mass Chapter who’s a longtime member and hike leader.) Check it out.
It was hot, really hot. And very sunny. It was humid. Really humid. And sticky. You could hardly drink enough water to make up for all that sweated out of you. Our shirts and shorts were soaked. Salt caked on my face. Not one of our staunch little group complained.
We got on to the South Skyline Trail, tramping up and down hills, till we reached the Tower atop Great Blue, a lovely stonework formation which housed steps up to the top and windows looking out over the whole Reservation.
Far to the East lay Boston, a shadowy city in misty grey.
A cool breeze blew through the windows at the top of the tower, as refreshing to the body as the sight of distant Houghton’s Pond, our starting point, was to the eye.
After enjoying vista and breezes, we saddled up and hiked off on the North Skyline Trail. Fine views were to be had atop Wolcott Hill and some of the Hemenways before we turned back to our friend Houghton and sloped on down to the parking lot.
A young mother with a friendly girl agreed to take our picture, proving that not only was the Blue Hill Reservation an amazing gift of nature within eyesight of Boston but it brought out the best in people. I certainly plan to return now that I’ve had such an enjoyable hiking venture there.