On the Wellesley/Needham line, off a street lined with some of Wellesley’s most beautiful mansions, a parking area just large enough for a few cars grants easy access to the 25-acre Guernsey Sanctuary. The trailhead is so much a part of its woodland surroundings that I blew by it, even though I’ve visited the beauty spot many times over the years. To reach the dirt lot from Dover Road in Wellesley, turn down Livingston Road. Livingston Road turns into Winding River Road, and near the Wellesley/Needham line is where you’ll find the parking area. Pro tip: when the house numbers reach the 150s/160s, slow down. You’re there. If you pass the yellow “no salt zone” sign on the right, and the yellow fire hydrant on the left, you’ve gone too far.
Now that we have that figured out, let’s take an easy one-mile, 45-minute woodland hike along tranquil paths softened with the needles of hundreds of towering pine trees, and lined with early-spring wildflowers and ferns; walk along Sabrina Lake, a man-made 18-acre body of water; and cross the bridge, an Eagle Scout project, to explore Oak Island.
Start your hike at the entrance point that’s on the same side of the road as the parking lot. At the Guernsey Sanctuary sign, bear right and look for a short wooden bridge that spans a currently dried-up brook bed.
From the bridge, step directly onto the stump rounds if it’s muddy or if you’d just like to have a bit of fun hopping from one round to the next. The “tree cookies,” as they’re sometimes called, were in 2020 sliced by Wellesley Conservation Land Trust volunteers from the trunks of fallen trees, and strategically placed as a nature-based solution to the mucky conditions that are often part of a Guernsey Sanctuary hike. Because the walking path rings a marsh, all it takes is a little rain to turn parts of the trail into a mud slick. The addition of the tree cookies encourages hikers to keep to the path instead of veering off-trail and trampling ecologically sensitive areas in an effort to keep footwear mud-free.
Shortly after the bridge, at the “Guidelines for Sanctuary & trail use” sign, go right. Soon after that you’ll pass a sanctuary access point in Needham at the end of the Locust Lane cul de sac in Needham.
If you can’t fathom so much as a casual stroll without fiddling with your phone, the Wellesley Conservation Land Trust has you covered. The Trust in 2019 brought technology to the Guernsey Trail with the addition of QR-codes at strategic spots along the one-mile circular trail. Support for the project was provided by the Wellesley Turkey Trot Foundation, and naturalists Bill Geizentanner of Wellesley and Ted Elliman of Sherborn, who conducted a botanical inventory of the area and identified 72 specimens and special places along the trail to be featured. Each of these features has a QR-code metal marker that identifies common and scientific names of the selected specimens and places, as well as information about various plants, trees, and water features along the trail. I tried out a few of the markers. Sometimes the QR codes worked for me, sometimes not. Success likely varies based on individual phone coverage.
Looking up from my phone I was rewarded, after an easy climb to the top of a slight rise, by a view of Sabrina Lake. (Landmark: a white house with a red roof sits directly across this narrow part of the lake.) The 18-acre privately owned body of water is approximately 1/2 mile long from north to south. Its deepest point is 10 feet, roughly in the center of the pond.
Lake Sabrina has attained “private lake” status by avoiding a state designation of “Great Pond.” According to www.mass.gov, a Great Pond is defined “…as any pond or lake that contained more than 10 acres in its natural state. Ponds that once measured 10 or more acres in their natural state, but which are now smaller, are still considered Great Ponds.” The law says that all Great Ponds must be open for fishing and boating, including providing reasonable access to the pond, except for reservoirs, and the ponds are held in trust for certain public uses. Because Sabrina Lake is an artificial pond, dug as a landscape feature, it is not “natural.” Basically, Sabrina Lake could be characterized as an enormous backyard swimming pool. There are about a dozen properties in Wellesley and Needham that contain Sabrina Lake water acreage, and the Trust owns four acres of water in Wellesley and 1.6 acres of water in Needham.
Sew what else about the area?
William Emerson Baker, a sewing machine patent holder, in the mid-1800s owned 800 acres in this part of Wellesley and Needham. The lake was dug under Baker’s direction. The property at one time included the 225-room luxury Hotel Wellesley, restaurants, two bear pits for Baker’s “pets,” and an amusement park that included over 100 attractions and exhibits. The Baker Estate amusement park and all its structures were located solely in Needham, although a small steamship and rented rowboats and canoes could traverse the entire lake. Soon after Baker’s death in 1888, the land was sold off in parcels, which eventually included a purchase of many acres by the Guernsey family.
The Guernsey family in the early 1960s donated 25 acres spread out over four gifts to the Wellesley Conservation Council. Although Guernseys no longer live in town, three family members in 2019 came back for a ribbon cutting to celebrate the opening of the “21st Century Nature Trail” section of the Guernsey Sanctuary. Siblings Robert (75), David (79), and Richard (who died at 81 on July 31, 2021), cut the yellow ribbon and reminisced over their years growing up on the property.
Back to the trail
Keeping the lake to the right, continue along the path. The QR code signage identifies many of the trees along this stretch—red maple, black gum, white ash, sugar maple, red cedar, and more. High overhead, a red tailed hawk tried to shake off two small birds giving it what-for, probably for an attempted nest invasion. Nearby, a common flicker offered its insect extermination services to a disintegrating tree trunk.
Along the way, a rustic bench provided a nice seating area for consumption of lunch & literature. Mounted on a lakeside tree is one of 12 poems etched onto cypress wood plaques by a Wellesley High School student and placed in outdoors spaces around town as part of a 2017 senior project. Kyle MacKinnon wrote each of the short, Robert Frost-style verses as a way to encourage people to get outside and explore Wellesley’s paths.
Continue on, still keeping the lake to your right. As a landmark, look for the Oak Island sign mounted on a tree.
Soon you’ll come to a the public fishing dock, maintained by the Wellesley Conservation Land Trust. Michael Tobin, president of the Land Trust, says the dock, “was acquired as a result of an encroachment settlement and it is literally an ‘educational platform’ and we have held annual fishing lessons there during our joint eco-program for middle schoolers with the town. We’d love to see more parents and kids experience nature and fishing from the dock. Catch and release the largemouth bass, please!”
Swimming in the lake is not recommended. Land Trust clerk Kevin Hanron says, “as a man-made lake created 150 years ago and never dredged, it is quite shallow (less than four-feet deep during dry summers). Near the edges it’s only a couple of feet deep. I’d be more apt to walk it than swim it, though the bottom is covered with a thick layer of organic debris.”
Next, several simple wooden pallets, another mud-avoidance measure, span the narrow path as it leads closer to Oak Island. Once you conquer the pallet crossing, keep to the right to explore the tiny island. Hop over via the sturdy, simple bridge, a 2018 Eagle Scout project led by Joseph Gerald Gallant of Troop 185.
A couple of folded-up camp chairs have been stashed in the underbrush on the island. I don’t think anyone would object if you pulled them out and sat a spell. Leaf litter beneath the water’s surface provides aquatic cover for jumpy frogs, as pine needles float on gentle ripples.
I headed back over the bridge, back over the pallets, and followed the path to the right at the junction. At state-certified Vernal Pool #122, a lone male mallard paddled about. The Q-code reader told the story of volunteers who surveyed the area and submitted evidence to the state that established the wetland as a vernal pool habitat. In the case of Pool #122, volunteers in their application stood up for two types of species found in the pool—wood frogs and fairy shrimp—that require the shallow, seasonal waters of a vernal pool in order to move through their life cycle stages. Vernal Pool certification was awarded by the state in 1990.
Soon after passing the pool, I crossed two wooden bridges in quick succession, both Troop 185 Eagle Scout projects. The first was constructed by Robby Littlefield in 2004, the second by Ben Zaehringer in 2006. At the fork I chose to bear right, just for the chance to walk along a fern-lined path over which towered a stand of massive pine trees. Another right, then a left, and I was on track to make it back to my car, the trail now cart-path wide and abutting suburban backyards.
(Note: for those who’d like to extend their hike, instead of taking that last left, go right. The path will take you across Livingston Street, where it will pick up again and lead to the Waban Arches.)
Different eras, different problems
As I drove back down Winding River Road, I played a little parlor game with myself. Which houses are the result of a teardown in the past ten years? How many years will these new houses last? Will they make it clear into the next century? Which of the original houses have ten years left in them, tops, before they’re toppled? I dodged my way through a gauntlet of service trucks lining both sides of the street, the vehicles of tradespeople at work to build, plumb, electrify, and to landscape, landscape, landscape. These were merely my 21st century musings.
Maybe in the 19th century, when the Baker estate amusement park was in full swing and the 250-room hotel had no vacancies, the musings differed. The neighbors probably complained about the crowds of out-of-towners and the smell of captive bears. Did they bemoan the environmental folly of digging a massive lake, or sniff that the 100+ attractions were tacky?
You can always trust the land
The Wellesley Conservation Land Trust, a 64-year-old organization and keeper of the 25-acre Guernsey Sanctuary, holds itself far removed from the real estate development game, or the amusement park business. With holdings that include over 35 acres of property over ten sanctuaries, as well as three easements, including the Lake Waban Easement, a 5-acre area along Lake Waban and Pond Road, the group focuses its efforts on protecting whatever natural resources are entrusted to them now, and in the future. They’re always looking for conservation-minded volunteers, so do step up if you’re interested in safeguarding what remains of Wellesley’s natural spaces. Or consider increasing the Land Trust’s holdings with some acreage you just happen to have tucked away somewhere in Wellesley.
Hike: Guernsey Sanctuary
Hiking distance: a loop of about 1 mile (45 minute easy walk)
Wellesley parking area: small lot on Winding River Road near homes numbered in the 150s/160s.
Needham parking area: on-street parking on Locust Lane.
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