Lauren R. Stevens | Hikes & Walks: The Flats offer nice, easy walking in winter

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Even in mid-winter, days or stretches of days go by that are perfectly walkable. There is no need to hole up in January, saying that you will get outside again come spring. Still, choosing the right place to stroll can make it easier; some place with low elevation and flat terrain, for example.

And there you have it: Berkshire Natural Resource Council's Housatonic Flats Reserve. Located just a bit north of downtown Great Barrington, the Flats offer easy, scenic walking within a close distance of shopping and dining, beside the Housatonic River, with wildlife viewing likely. The loop trail is just shy of a mile long.

It's not only the trail that's loopy. The 26-acre property fits inside a big bend in the river, allowing the trail to follow a half-mile of shoreline—although in some places you have to step off the trail a few feet to reach the bank.

The interior of the property, which shows earlier routes of the river, is a wetland and therefore likely to be icy. Micro-spikes and poles might help with the footing. All around, floodplain forest of silver maple and cottonwood is revegetating, after years when the property was essentially a dump site. BNRC removed many tons of debris. Before that is was a pasture. Before that, guess what, a floodplain forest — in other words, populated with species that like a lot of water, even standing water.

Once you look for it, there's a surprising amount of variety in color and texture in a winter landscape. Tree and bush branches are turning red and showing buds. Squirrels, chipmunks, mice are out foraging, some burrowing through the light snow cover. Snow forms oval patterns around tree trunks in accordance with the wind. Some critter life is at work, perhaps gnawing on trees. Bare branches cast elegant shadows. Animal tracks are everywhere for speculation.

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Pull into the parking lot at the BNRC sign on the west side of Route 7 just north the WSBS radio broadcast tower. The trail begins at the gate. Not sure why there's a gate, but it's a handsome wooden one.

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Pass the kiosk with a helpful map and nature notes. Walk approximately 50 yards to the trail junction. Go straight to do the loop counterclockwise. Pass beneath overhead wires, approaching the river. You are there at the site of a sawn wooden bench. Chances are good that if you pause there you will see some river dwellers: ducks, geese, beaver, perhaps some warm water fish species. The beaver here burrow into the bank.

Continue on. Across the Housy the bank is eroding, a natural process as a river alters its route. Such sculpting is the key to the creation of oxbows, which occur when a river changes course, leaving the half-moon remains of the former route, often still wet. That explains the wet patches on this property.

The process is one of several reasons why the state's River Protection Act limits development close to the shore. Another reason is that the lowlands, such as where you're walking, store high water and release it gradually after a storm or ice melt, a far better alternative to the destructive power of a sudden, heavy discharge.

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After following the river around a bend, you come to another sawn bench, where a small tributary enters. This is another apt spot to take in the scene, including wildlife. Notice how the trees, even bare, shield the sound of the heavy traffic on Stockbridge Road, enabling you to attend to the calls of any winter birds.

The trail then wanders inland through a nascent forest until it reaches the trail junction. The trails are not blazed, but the signs provide all the necessary guidance, in this case advising a right turn to return to parking.

Now, aren't you glad you chose to come outside on a sunny winter day? Happy trails to you.

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


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