MONTEREY -- Near the southern edge of the 12,000-acre Beartown State Forest, a year-round destination for outdoors enthusiasts, lies Benedict Pond. It is as lovely a small lake as any in Western Massachusetts, and at an elevation of nearly 1,600 feet it offers a hint of northern wilderness.
Surrounding this 36-acre pristine pond, a 11 2-mile, very well maintained foot path blazed in blue follows the shore, often close enough to allow both hikers and boaters to enjoy an outing together. Walkers in early spring will find our state flower, the trailing arbutus, also called Mayflower, along the trail.
Following a rain, small orange salamanders called efts, which eventually change into aquatic spotted newts, and wood frogs sometimes cross the path. In late summer walkers may hear the gray tree frog and its smaller relative, the spring peeper, and an observant and patient watcher may sometimes see them close enough to touch. In spring, their calls are deafening in places.
The state forest has a network of trails over diverse terrain, good for hours of hiking. Even the Appalachian Trail passes through, close to the pond, and meets the loop trail at the south end of Benedict, following the trail Northeast through some white cedar and the lovely ground-creeping partridgeberry. After crossing a wooden bridge and passing an old stone wall it veers off to the right.
In spring the shoreline and woods beyond are alive with birds, and in late May and June extensive thickets of mountain laurel and azalea provide a colorful backdrop that is breathtaking. And on a calm morning, their reflection in the water is a delight to visitors especially those sporting a camera.
As the season progresses through to the latter part of summer, the once inconspicuous blueberry bushes come alive with bunches of blueberries free for the picking, and this year apparently saw a bumper crop -- enough for many pickers, animal and human, and the birds too.
The pond itself is multi-use; during the warmer months a small, sandy swimming beach about 40 yards from the launch site encourages swimming, and the nearby shoreline offers frog hunting for youngsters.
After launching our kayaks we paddled south, sometimes hugging the shore sometimes paddling out to the center for a 360-degree view of this extraordinary place. In the southern part, kayakers and canoeists coasted with fishing rods in hand. An angler I spoke with said they "were catching largemouth bass, yellow perch and pumpkinseed, but that brown bullhead, pickerel and shiners are just waiting their turn."
For the amateur botanist, the woods along the shore provide a rich assortment of low, unobtrusive plants like wintergreen, sphagnum moss, club moss, polypody fern, hairy cap moss, Canada mayflower, trilliums and more.
Further along, cattail stands in the shallows provide habitat for muskrats, ducks, and other wildlife. Beaver are active here. On our early September trip, female mallards or black ducks -- without binoculars it was difficult to distinguish them -- lazily floated about occasionally dabbling just below the water's surface for a nibble of pondweed.
Several varieties of water lilies and pond weeds were blossoming, along with a species of bladderwort I had never encountered before.
Continuing south, we arrived at the dam where Benedict gives up its water to Stony Brook, which flows three miles or so before confluence with Konkapot Brook, which in turn later joins the Housatonic River.
While in summer the forest offers hiking trails, swimming, fishing and boating, in winter it may offer ice fishing, and perhaps also skating, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling -- if the cold weather cooperates.
If you go ...
What: Benedict Pond and loop trail
Where: Beartown State Forest, 69 Blue Hill Road, off Route 23, Monterey
When: Sunrise to sunset, year-round
Admission: Free from Labor Day to mid-May