Lauren R. Stevens | Hikes & Walks: Dunbar Brook Trail leads to vernal pools and its unique inhabitants

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Distractions should not keep us from noticing spring. About this time of year, I would normally recommend visiting Bartholomew's Cobble, in Sheffield, to take in the spring ephemerals. Alas, The Trustees of Reservations, along with Massachusetts Audubon, had recently closed their properties due to COVID-19, so I improvised. The Trustees, however, have re-opened Bartholomew's Cobble along with 74 other sites as of Friday.

The good news is that, if you want to adventure beyond Trustees areas, vernal pools and the flowers that bloom before the trees leaf out can be found on many wooded Berkshire trails. And the truly good news is that, so far, we are allowed to walk in most woods, providing we keep appropriate distance from each other.

We can find the pools by listening, as I did on my way north. Vernal pools are seasonal bodies of water that form temporarily over bedrock or non-permeable soil, without any connection to streams. Thus, the infant frogs, toads and salamanders, and insect species, that thrive in them are not subject to predation by fish. Under the right conditions these pools — called vernal because they usually form with the snowmelt and rain of the spring — announce themselves with the croaks, peeps and assorted mating sounds of their inhabitants. The activity moves from south to north.

The pools, since they are a unique habitat, are protected by the Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act. Some of the species owe their existence to these temporarily pools. Citizens can provide information for certifying vernal pools, based on the species that inhabit them. Hikers do well to listen as well as look in the woods.

Soon — maybe now in south county — forest floors will be alive with delicate flowers, whose one-time, short-lived bloom etches an indelible image for those who walk in the woods. They may bloom on the periphery of vernal pools; they will accompany us on our walks almost anywhere.

Perversely, however, I headed to the Dunbar Brook Trail, which as of a week ago still bore traces of snow and ice. That narrow, shaded valley is an extreme test of the progress of spring. Dunbar Brook is a tributary of the Deerfield River, joining it north of the eastern entrance of the Hoosac Tunnel and north of the bear Swamp Visitors Center, on River Road, just on the Florida/Monroe line.

Traveling east on Route 2 from North Adams, Whitcomb Hill Road is a left turn beyond Whitcomb Summit. It swings right and then ends at River Road where we turn left. Parking for the Dunbar Brook hike is on the left, 4.5 miles from the Mohawk Trail. Unlike the more popular trails, Dunbar Brook trailhead and trail were deserted last weekend.

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When to go is another question; for those who want to walk when the spring flowers are so thick under foot it requires acrobatics to keep from stepping on them, perhaps late April. Still, the ice is gone now, I'm sure, and Dunbar Brook would make a fine Easter stroll. Bonnets optional.

The two-plus-mile trail begins up the hill from parking. The stairs lead only to a dead end, the fence at the dam, so we pass them by. Gradually the trail, blazed blue, descends to a new bridge crossing Dunbar Brook. Taking a left there, up the hill, leads to Raycroft Lookout and Spruce Mountain.

We cross that bridge when we come to it. The trail runs nearer or a bit farther from the brook, following upstream. Many side brooks enter, especially at this time of the year. Crossing is a problem at only one, the site of the lean-to, for the bridge is out, but an old trail turning right has been rediscovered. It leads to an easier crossing.

The trail climbs steeply by some boulders in an area rife with spruce and hemlock seedlings, a remarkable sight. Here it is farthest from the brook, for it comes out on Main Road in Monroe, a few hundred feet uphill from another parking area and bridge. Note to ourselves to remember that for the return trip, as the blue blazed trail there leads only to old mill foundations, not to the Dunbar Brook Trail.

With or without ephemerals, the trail hosts interesting features, including large and old hemlocks. Still the brook holds our attention. It is what a mountain brook should look and sound like. The boulders are worn smooth, multicolored, set in occasional patches of gravel. And, really, if we're looking for signs of spring, there is none more fundamental, less ephemeral, than that of a stream that has shrugged off its icy robes.

Happy trails to you.

Lauren R. Sevens is author of "50 Hikes in the Berkshire Hills," Countryman Press/W.W. Norton, 2016.


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