By most accounts, nature walks in the pandemic are wildly popular; a pastime indulged by homebound souls seeking relief, enough so to vacate — however fleetingly — digits and screens for feet and fields.
Conservationists are both thrilled by the rediscovery of Henry David Thoreau and wary the airborne virus might thrive on crowded trails.
Andover Public Health Director Tom Carbone and Andover Conservation Commissioner Jon Honea, a biology professor at Emerson College, endorse a middle ground.
“Say you are in a park or on a trail, you just want to make sure you either keep a safe distance or wear a mask,” Honea said.
“Outside is a lot safer than inside because the wind is blowing things away and drying things out,” he added.
On a recent Thursday, this reporter sought natural areas with and without crowds.
Our adventure started at 1 p.m. at Deer Leap – a Windham town property long cherished by conservationists. The dirt parking lot had one other car. Near the trailhead a sign urged social distancing.
The trail climbed and fell, exposed roots and rocks demanding care. In 20 minutes came the cliff. Legend has it a deer, pursued by a Native American, leaped over boulders and plummeted 60 feet down to the pond.
The view from up high is spectacular, but the trail’s name invites caution to avoid the fate of the deer. We saw two people, a young couple without masks, near a cellar hole.
At 3 p.m. we arrived to Salem Town Forest, the 347-acre tract suggested by Conservation Commissioner Ruth Tanner Isaks, chemistry professor emeritus at UMass Lowell.
Beyond the William Schultz footbridge was a mask-less young couple with a baby in a stroller. In 45 minutes we saw nine people, four with masks, and three dogs.
The A trail – among several paths and loops – is wide and flat. Chipmunks chip-chipped and whistled, and birds called and sang.
Ninety minutes later when arrived to North Andover at Foster Farm – recommended by Glen Aspeslagh, president of Friends of North Andover Trails – only three cars were in the big parking lot.
On a hike through meadows where sheep once grazed, we saw no walkers.
Above the trail, a quarter mile in, a bluebird and bluejay quarreled in flight. Along the trail, near scattered blossom petals and the snake on break, aged gray fence posts leaned.
They were strung with old rusty brown wire. Still older stone walls stood on the other side of the grass path. New and old grass and fruit blossoms spiced the air.
Our last stop, at 6:30, was Harold Rafton Reservation, the largest of Andover’s dozens of AVIS lands. No walkers crossed our path but two loomed in a distant field.
A sign told users they needed to wear a mask on the private conservation land. AVIS trustee Susan Stott recommended the trail. She’s never seen them used more than now and is glad for it.
She also knows four people who have died from COVID-19, and two of her high school classmates from Concord were hospitalized.
“I don’t want to have to tell someone my age to stay home because somebody younger is not being considerate,” she said.