On the trail of a hidden jewel

Andover man's vision of a hiking path around Boston nears completion

Al French gazes out over a tree canopy towards Boston's skyline from Holt Hill on the Ward Reservation in Andover. Al French gazes out over a tree canopy towards Boston's skyline from Holt Hill on the Ward Reservation in Andover. (Mark Wilson/Globe Staff)
By Mark Arsenault
Globe Correspondent / October 16, 2008
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Seen from the top of Holt Hill in Andover, beyond hardwood forests dyed red and gold this time of the year, the Boston skyline is a jagged gray tear at the horizon. Houses and development are hidden in the folds of the land, and if you didn't know better you might think there was nothing but trees between Holt Hill and the city.

This top-of-the-hill vista, from inside the Ward Reservation, is a highlight on the Bay Circuit Trail, a 200-mile footpath around suburban Boston that was first imagined nearly 80 years ago.

"This spot is a jewel," said Alan French, who has given 20 years of his life to the trail project. "It's a jewel on the outer emerald necklace."

Most people have heard of the Appalachian Trail, and serious hikers are acquainted with the Long Trail in Vermont and the Pacific Crest. But after two decades of nudging, begging, and lobbying by Al French and many others, the lesser-known Bay Circuit Trail is nearly complete, providing people in Eastern Massachusetts an opportunity for long hikes, without a long drive.

The Bay Circuit arcs around Boston, from Plum Island in Newburyport to the Bay Farm Conservation Area at the Kingston-Duxbury line. It's a Frankenstein trail, stitched mainly from existing footpaths over land owned by state agencies, municipalities, land trusts, utilities, and conservation groups, mostly inside the corridor between Route 128 and Interstate 495. Where forests no longer exist, the Bay Circuit follows town streets, sticking wherever possible to historic neighborhoods.

What the trail needs now, said French, are people to walk it.

"Maybe it won't be in my lifetime, but the goal is to get people to know the Bay Circuit, and to use it," he said. "Because then they will protect it."

Proposed in 1929 as a greenway similar to the Frederick Law Olmsted parks in Boston known as the city's Emerald Necklace, the Bay Circuit was designed to make connections. The trail links 50 Massachusetts towns. It connects today's environmentalists with the land preservation movement of the early 20th century. And it connects residents of Greater Boston with nature.

Al French is 76. He has hiked the entire Bay Circuit four times, most recently last fall. On that trip, he stayed one night in a tiny park near the Neponset River in Walpole, a special spot where French and his wife, Mary, had slept in 1998 during a hike together.

Seven years after the death of Mary French at age 68, the Bay Circuit still connects Al to his wife.

"To spend 16 days on the trail with someone you love so much, with no telephones and interruptions, was very special, and I'll never forget it," he said.

Volunteers developing the trail don't expect many people to hike the whole thing; it's a difficult trip to plan because there are very few places along the way to legally camp. The point of the project is to preserve undeveloped land, and to inspire people to get outside with the idea of long-distance hiking.

"A trail that sweeps around the whole of Massachusetts Bay catches people's imaginations in a way local trails do not," said Ron McAdow, director of a land trust helping to preserve a key section of trail in Sudbury. "The idea that you could start at the North Shore as a pedestrian and walk to the South Shore, that's remarkable."

The northern terminus of the trail is on a Plum Island beach. Moving generally south and west around Boston, the trail winds to Prospect Hill, a protected area in Rowley and the highest point in town, according to the nonprofit Bay Circuit Alliance. It enters Phillips Wildlife Sanctuary and Bald Hill Reservation, then snakes mostly west to the Essex County high point in Ward Reservation.

From there, the trail passes through seven reservations preserved by a local land trust, the Andover Village Improvement Society. At the Merrimack River, it follows an urban walking path through Lowell. The trail is expected to go through Chelmsford and Carlisle on the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail, which is under construction. Farther south in Concord, the trail passes Walden Pond near the site of Henry David Thoreau's cabin.

Highlights from its western and southern sections include Nobscot Scout Reservation in Sudbury; Borderland State Park in Easton; and Tubb's Meadow, a former cranberry bog in Pembroke.

As the chairman of the alliance, French is the trail's chief cheerleader and lobbyist. The project, he said, "has been one of the most important things in my life."

Jan Fowler, a Bay Circuit volunteer, struggled to characterize what French has contributed to the trail.

"His soul," she offered, finally.

French can be pressured into admitting he graduated from Yale (class of '54) and then Harvard Business School, but seems embarrassed, as if the Ivy League is a blemish on the résumé of an outdoorsman.

After school, he went into the printing business. Then, in 1966, during an overnight trip to Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire, French and a friend stared into a campfire and talked themselves out of the rat race. They quit their corporate jobs and started an outdoor equipment company.

"I discovered that for me it's best to have a life close to the outdoors and a life that is small, with small organizations," he said.

French now runs Moor & Mountain, a backpacking equipment store in Andover. The headquarters of the Bay Circuit Alliance is at his store, in a cluttered corner of piled paper and file folders that looks like it was organized by pack rats.

One of his heroes is Benton MacKaye, father of the Appalachian Trail, which runs 2,175 miles from Georgia to Maine. A forester and a planner, MacKaye proposed the Appalachian Trail in 1921, writing: "Life for two weeks on the mountaintop would show up many things about life during the other 50 weeks down below."

In the 1930s, MacKaye helped develop a plan for the Bay Circuit, which had been proposed by a landscape architect, Charles Eliot.

Very little happened on the project until the 1980s, when the state of Massachusetts contributed more than $3 million from an open space bond to provide planning grants and to protect Bay Farm, the southern terminus, according to the alliance.

When the money ran out, the state turned the project over to grass-roots volunteers.

Some short gaps along the Bay Circuit still remain in places the alliance has been unable to get easements. The trail works around these problems by directing hikers on to streets, some of which are busy and not scenic. French promises to keep working to close the gaps, to move more of the trail off-road, and perhaps to encourage the development of camping areas along the route.

After 20 years of work, the Bay Circuit "is still not a household name," he said.

"But we're going to make it so."

If you go

Most of the Bay Circuit Trail is marked with white blazes about the size of a dollar bill, but navigating can still be tricky. The Bay Circuit Alliance offers many free maps, lists of recommended hikes on the "jewels" of the trail, and detailed, turn-by-turn directions on its website,

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