Chasing wildflowers on the Dome and Agawon Trail (April 14 newsletter)

It’s the first time I’ve ever taken my shoes off in the woods to get a better grip. It’s the first time in New England I’ve ever wound up on a trail so steep I can imagine sliding straight off the mountain. But there are plenty of young beech trees to hold onto. The leaves are smooth and dry, and the duff is surprisingly soft on bare feet.

I’m halfway down the Agawon Trail when I ease in between tree trunks to get a breather. And right at my feet there are yellow wood violets in bloom.

This is what happens when I head up White Oak Road on a Sunday morning without consulting the North Berkshire Outdoor Guide. The Williams Outing Club puts together a carefully field-tested book (I wandered into Nature’s closet on Spring Street to find one) — and next time I will read it first.

This morning looked too sunny to stay indoors, and people have been telling me about the trails up the Dome. I remembered seeing the trail head up White Oaks, up along the river where it turns into a dirt road. The map at the trailhead says you can walk partway in and follow the Agawon Trail back.

It seems to be a day for surprises. I find a smooth stone along the trail for stretching out on and looking at the sky. White ephemeral wildflowers are blooming, thick along the path, five petals around a long, slender throat. If you look closely, they overlap and fold in at the base of each petal, like a delicate living origami: trailing arbutus on a northeastern slope.

Trailing arbutus opens along the Dome trail in Williamstown.
Photo by Kate Abbott

Trailing arbutus opens along the Dome trail in Williamstown.

The dome trail rises steadily and gently, and just above the meeting with Agawon an erratic boulder sits like a giant quahog, offering a natural bench.

Then the trail turns and slithers gleefully right down the eastern face of the hill. I’m on a switchback barely eight inches wide, drifting with last year’s leaves. I’m looking across the valley to another slope in shadow, and the ground drops away until I almost feel like I could step straight ahead into clear air.

At the valley floor, the path ends at the broad brook trail, and I turn southwest to walk along the base of the mountain. Even in a drought, the stream is running high enough to sound loud and forceful over the stones. The way widens out along outcrops of smooth glacial rock.

… And then it crosses the river. Not by a bridge — it simply ends on this side and begins again on the other. I should have known. I would have known if I’d looked it up and paid attention. And most of the year it wouldn’t matter, because the river is full of stepping stones. But I’m out here in old jeans and worn out walking shoes with no treads and the t-shirt my sister made me with ‘looking for a mind at work’ on it, trying to figure out how to get across the spring meltwater. I don’t mind the wet feet, and it’s a warm day for April, but even a brook 15 feet wide has currents that deserve respect.

I don’t recommend this — let me repeat firmly. But I inch out and lean onto wet rock and make my way one footstep and handhold at a time. I wade out wet to the knees and triumphant. The path runs smoothly into tall evergreens, trunks three feet across, needles short and delicate glinting green, and I think I may be in love with these old hemlock trees.

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