BELCHERTOWN -- It's a longstanding piece of Massachusetts lore: When the Quabbin Reservoir is low, they say a church steeple rises from the water, a ghostly reminder of the towns submerged by the flooding of the Swift River Valley in 1939.
When I mentioned I would be circumnavigating the central Massachusetts reservoir that supplies Greater Boston with its water, following the route described in a new guidebook called ''Around the Quabbin: Where Nature Flourishes and History Comes to Life" (Pentacle, $12.95), a friend who grew up in the little town of Pelham immediately brought up the steeple story.
No offense, says Dale Monette, program coordinator at the Quabbin Visitors Center in Belchertown, but, ''I guarantee he's never seen it." No structures of the four ''lost" towns of the valley, all vacated and disincorporated in March 1938, were left standing, he confirmed on the day I visited.
Still, folks like to believe otherwise.
''I had one guy in here who swore he remembered being a little kid on a boat with his dad, paddling around the steeple," Monette said with an amused wag of his head. He tries to set such visitors straight, but ''you can't just tell people they're crazy."
Some area residents undoubtedly did just that when engineers first floated the idea of flooding the valley back in the 1890s. At the Fisher Museum in Petersham, an educational facility of Harvard University's forestry program, a recent feature in its monthly video series was a half-hour 1981 documentary on the lost towns of the Old Quabbin Valley.
The program opened with footage of a man in a red windbreaker, sitting in a rowboat in the reservoir. He identified himself not only as a Quabbin engineer but also as a former resident of Enfield, one of the ''discontinued" towns. His old home, he said -- not ruefully, just matter-of-factly -- once stood directly below the boat, 150 feet down.
You know you're in hardy country when a sign on the road marks the entrance to a curling arena. After admiring the stately Greek Revival homes around Petersham Common, I set off west on Route 122, around the northern tip of the Quabbin, toward New Salem. The foliage had fallen; on an overcast day the most vivid colors in sight were the bright orange vests and caps on the hunters tramping into the woods.
The guidebook recommends that visitors begin their trip around the Quabbin in North New Salem, where the Swift River Valley Historical Society exhibits artifacts from the lost towns of Enfield, Prescott, Greenwich, and Dana. The site, like Belchertown's Stone House Museum and other notable draws, is closed for the season, but I got out in the soft snow to inspect the old hand-lettered road marker preserved on the grounds. A little brook gurgled nearby.
The appeal of the Quabbin, says David J. McLaughlin, who co-wrote the guidebook with Laren Bright and founded the new ''Pathways to the Past" series of New England guidebooks, is its palpable connection to another time.
''There's a richer experience to be had if you understand the history and can appreciate the way things have evolved," he said in a phone conversation. McLaughlin, who grew up in Montague and now lives in Arizona, has full-color pocket guides on the way for exploring the Upper Pioneer Valley and the Mohawk Trail, and he plans to publish larger books devoted to the Berkshires, Cape Cod, and other New England destinations.
His niche, he said, is to provide more historical background than the typical tourist handbook. For ''Around the Quabbin," he worked closely with the local historical societies, noting the regional significance not only of the Quabbin project but of Revolution-era incidents such as Shays' Rebellion. The aim of the series, McLaughlin said, is to ''ferret out the soul of the place."
On a brief side trip to Montague, about 20 minutes west of the foggy reservoir, that soul began to emerge. Along the way, the tiny Shutesbury public library, a red gingerbread box built in 1903, had a flyer posted on the door for Mudfest, a pottery show and sale in nearby Leverett. I stopped in to check my directions to the Montague Book Mill, which advertises, ''Books You Don't Need at a Place You Can't Find."
Anything of interest along the way? I asked the librarian.
Well, there's Dudleyville, she replied, though nothing there would be open this time of year. She thought a moment.
''A lot of trees," she finally added with a smile. Outside, a rifle shot cracked in the not-too-distant woods.
The Quabbin came to life as I retraced my path and headed south into Belchertown. With the fog having lifted by the time I reached Quabbin Park, the magnificence of this ''accidental wilderness" was apparent from the grounds of the handsome brick administrative building, which overlooks the southern tip of the reservoir and the 2,640-foot Winsor Dam. The lapping water and well-manicured grounds created an aptly contemplative setting in which to imagine the daily life that once inhabited the vanished towns.
The reservoir, where former hilltops are now islands and bald eagles have become familiar wintertime visitors, is undeniably beautiful, as one former resident said in the video at the Fisher Museum.
''But I know what was there," she said, ''so I've got two beauties."
Contact James Sullivan, a freelance writer in Amesbury, at email@example.com.