|Type||Great Base Lodge|
|Distance||Walker's Choice: 10 plus miles of trails|
|Highlights||Sun, Sand, Marsh, Food, Drink, Life. Bill Sargent plumbed his big toe into the wet sand and pulled out a Moon Snail, round and glistening. All morning long that toe had been a snail-seeking missile, unerringly locating the strangely lovely mollusks hidden well below the tide line on Crane Beach in Ipswich, MA.|
Bill Sargent, a naturalist, author, and consultant to the NOVA Science series, had agreed to take a nature walk with me at low tide on an early fall morning. In a few hours I received a better education than in any biology textbook. For example, did you know that the Horseshoe Crab has nine eyes, including in its tail?
But back to the Moon Snail. I gazed in appalled fascination at its fleshy, slimy, sand-colored foot, much larger than the snail itself, which it uses to search for food and dig below the surface. When it latches on to its prey, usually a surf clam or other shellfish, it uses an organ called a radula, like a tongue with teeth, to drill a perfectly round hole in the top of the clam’s shell. Then, Sargent explains: “the snail extrudes its stomach down through the hole and slurps out the contents of the clam.”
Wow. Beauty, science, mystery, drama – Crane Beach at low tide has it all. Plus, Sargent says, “It is the best time to do yoga on the exposed sand islands.”
Walking the four-plus miles of shoreline at Crane Beach (don’t use a possessive ‘s’ if you want to sound like a native!) is only the most obvious place for natural wonders in the 2100-acre Crane Estate. The area is threaded with miles of trails that can be stitched together or taken in pieces in a tapestry of combinations.
Perhaps best of all for those who want to spend a few days wandering by the sea, the Inn at Castle Hill is a 10-room farmhouse on the Estate grounds that has been converted into a luxury B & B. It is a warm, welcoming, blessedly peaceful retreat – there are no telephones, televisions or radios – and they don’t mind if you track in a little sand.
All of the trails are reachable from the Inn’s front door. Try exploring the five ½-mile network of dune trails that are lightly traveled even in high summer. “The dunes and pockets back there are where the really interesting things happen,” says Chris Buelow, coastal ecologist for the Trustees of Reservations, the non-profit conservation group that maintains the property.
Indeed, it is in the back dunes were you’ll find wild cranberry bogs, carnivorous plants like the Sundew, and other vegetation highly specialized for the harsh conditions in the dunes. The trails are well-marked and rise and fall with the sand, offering tantalizing glimpses of the ocean before descending into cool, piney depressions.
Another option is the short but steep walk up “the Grand Allée” – a broad, green swath leading to the imposing English-style Crane Castle, centerpiece of the estate. Completed in 1928, the mansion was the summer home of industrialist Richard T. Crane, Jr., who made his fortune in the manufacture of bathroom fixtures, including the porcelain toilet. If you can time your visit to the regular house tours it’s fun to check out the several bathrooms on the second floor, complete with silver faucets and other luxuries of the gilded era.
But my favorite walk on the Crane Estate is the Cedar Point trail, an easy 2-mile round trip that traverses three distinct microclimates.
First is a traditional woodland, full of gnarled apple trees and blackberry bushes, as the path wanders past the estate’s original green-tiled stables and workshops made of stucco. A lovely walled garden and vineyard – now empty but for a few ancient pear trees – sits hidden above the path like something right out of Francis Hodgson Burnett.
At the well-marked fork bear left, and soon the trail opens up into a section of the Great Salt Marsh – at 17,000 acres the largest continuous salt marsh in North America. This intensely productive ecosystem absorbs more carbon ounce-per-ounce than any other type of landscape. In addition to its other well-known roles absorbing the energy of coastal storms and filtering impurities, the salt marsh is a crucial corrective to the buildup of greenhouse gases.
To the left, Fox Creek meanders its way between the Ipswich and Castle Neck Rivers, its carved oxbows another lesson in earth science. Depending on the tides (and the tides here can reach nearly 12 feet), the creek’s peat-y banks are easily visible in the marsh grass or flooded over and indistinct, like an impressionist’s watercolor.
As the path grows sandier, a stand of Phragmites nods and rustles in the breeze. This majestic purple plant is considered invasive, but I cant help but love the way its roots – rhizomes, really – aerate the marsh, and how its stalks provide perches for red-wing blackbirds, their obvious coloring and distinctive conk-a-ree making me feel like the knowledgeable birder I am not.
Finally, the walk spills out onto Steep Hill beach, where the Ipswich River meets Plum Island Sound. The water here is cold and gin-clear, and because the tides can rise and fall almost two feet in an hour, the currents are fierce, and great for fishing.
I have made this short walk dozens of times, and it never looks the same way twice. The season, the weather, the light, the tides all give the trail its distinct moment, never repeated, as any moment in a rushing current is never repeated. I have seen it looking like a wedding bower, abloom with wild white roses in the spring; alive with song sparrows and dragonflies in summer; still and hushed and pristine on New Year’s Day. I have watched the marsh grasses change color from a muddy brown to a riotous green – so bright it looks lit from within – to a bright orange-gold in the fall.
* * *
The brisk salt spray and the surprisingly arduous hiking through deep sand will make visitors eager for the civilized pleasures of the Inn at Castle Hill. The farmhouse is the original homestead and the oldest building on the Crane estate, built in 1899 and converted by the Trustees of Reservations into a fine bed and breakfast just 10 years ago.
Each room in the inn is separately designed, some with fireplaces, and each has its own distinct personality. My husband and I stayed in Teller, on the third floor, a snug but utterly cozy room that suggests a ship’s quarters, full of gleaming woodwork, with a window seat overlooking the sea. Luxurious down comforters and a hot shower made for a deep and dreamless sleep.
In the morning, before the sun even breached the horizon, we took a walk along a wooded path to the beach. It was late October, and the very tops of the maple trees burned red and gold as the first rays of the sun set them ablaze. In the blue-green Hudsonia, a ground cover with long stringy roots perfectly evolved for a beach environment, we saw a sudden ruffling. There, as if sitting for a portrait, was a charismatic little songbird, white and brown with a faint red band on the top of its chest, and an orange beak: my first snow bunting.
The thrill of finding and photographing this sweet little bird kept me warm for almost an hour’s blustery trek out to the ocean, west toward Steep Hill, and, once again, along the Cedar Point Trail. But I was also very gratified to find the delicious full hot breakfast, the strong coffee served in silver carafes, and the roaring fire waiting for us back at the Inn.
Renée Loth is a columnist for The Boston Globe’s opinion pages and the former editor of the Globe’s editorial page.
In a distinguished journalism career Loth has worked in a variety of high-visibility assignments at the Globe, including political editor, State House bureau reporter, and magazine writer.
With the support of traveling journalism fellowships she has reported from 14 countries.
Renée is a member of the Massachusetts Women’s Forum and is board vice-chair of PEN /New England, which promotes literacy and free expression worldwide. In the fall she will be a fellow at Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Center for the Press, Politics and Public Policy.
Ms Loth, 58, was born in Port Chester, NY. She is married to the jazz pianist, Bert Seager. They live in Boston.
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