By Karen Klinger
Standing on a knoll above a remnant of geological history, where a glacier moved mountains of rocks and gravel to the sea and flanked on both sides by a forest of tall trees, Chip Norton said that if not for the distant roar of a highway, you might think you were somewhere in the vast, verdant wilderness of Maine.
This was no wilderness, though, but a place so close--and yet, in a way--so far from the dense, urban streets of Cambridge that no one not in the know might have guessed that it is actually a part of the city. Only minutes by car from Harvard Square, there are 1,200 acres of hiking trails, vernal pools, towering white pines and oaks, habitats for deer and a variety of other year-round wildlife, plus migrating birds and plants ranging from abundant blueberry bushes to mountain laurel, phlox, wild geranium and a red-coated lichen with the delightful name of "British soldiers."
It's a place families might want to go and explore on an afternoon. It is, after all, owned by the citizens and taxpayers of Cambridge.
If only they knew about it.
But almost no one does.
Not even a city council member, Sam Seidel, who told this writer in a conversation that he'd never been there and did not even know the public had access to it.
And that's too bad, because in just a short recent walk led by Norton, the watershed manager of the Cambridge Water Department, a small group marveled at the many toads they almost stepped on, the proliferation of berry bushes, the downhill sweep of rocks and boulders that he said were the remains of what a "glacier carried down here from New Hampshire" and stone walls built by Colonial-era farmers who cleared the property and eventually found the soil too thin and unproductive, with their descendants abandoning it and moving west toward more fertile land.
Thanks to the foresight of city leaders in the 19th century who bought land in Weston, Waltham, Lincoln and Lexington in what is now known as the "upper watershed," the city established its own water system with feeder reservoirs named Hobbs Brook and Stony Brook. People who are aware of the system are generally most familiar with Fresh Pond, a reservoir from which the city pumps up to 16 million gallons a day, but it is just a big holding tank--the actual source of the water is upstream in Hobbs Brook and Stony Brook.
When a pipe that ruptured earlier this month interrupted the safe water supply for 2.2 million people in the Greater Boston area who depend on the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA), Cambridge was quite literally a tranquil oasis in a temporary urban desert. But the city, aware that even many Catabrigians did not know they were not affected by the crisis, felt it had to put out an advisory to that effect on its cable TV channel.
With that precedent in mind, the city might want to do more to publicize the fact the hundreds of acres of watershed land it owns just a short trip away--even within bicycling distance--is a place that the public can, in fact, see where the water supply comes from while at the same time looking at hawks overhead, ducks and geese moving across the reservoirs and maybe getting a glimpse of the white-tailed deer that Norton said "are just everywhere." Not to mention the usual array of squirrels, coyotes, raccoons and groundhogs.
But for those who can't manage to get that far afield, the volunteer group Friends of Fresh Pond (which sponsored Norton's walk) has a full program of opportunities for getting out and enjoying pond-related activities in June, with bird walks, a plant photography workshop, a look at invasive plant identification and a Fresh Pond "walkabout" led by Norton, which will focus on the goals of an ecological restoration project.
Norton is scheduled to lead another walk through the upper watershed in July. Elizabeth Wylde, a leading force in the Friends of Fresh Pond and an avid gardener and botanist who helped guide the recent hike (Norton was often heard asking, "Elizabeth, what is this flower?") said she hoped for a good turnout so that the people of Cambridge can see just what a near-Eden they own, and so nearby.
Chip Norton will lead two more tours of the upper watershed this year, on July 26 and September 27 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. He will also lead three "walkabouts" of the Fresh Pond Reservation on June 21, August 9 and October 25 from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. The meeting place for both programs will be the entrance to the Walter J. Sullivan Water Purification Facility at 250 Fresh Pond Parkway. To register for a tour or walkabout, send an email to email@example.com or call 617-349-6489.
To see an artistic view of Cambridge's reservoir and watershed system, go to the second floor of the water treatment facility, where there is an eight foot by 16 foot mural created to scale in 1983 by painter Michelle Turre. To see a map of the watershed, including Hobbs Brook and Stony Brook reservoirs, go to: http://www.cambridgema.gov/CityOfCambridge_Content/documents/Surface%20W...
For more information about programs sponsored by Friends of Fresh Ponds, go to: http://friendsoffreshpond.org
To see a previous story about Cambridge's water system, go to: www.cctvcambridge.org./node/18054/