Where We Went: Getty Memorial Conservation Area & adjacent trails, in between Nessacus Middle School & Wahconah High School in Dalton, MA
When We Went: Late May & August (school WAS out!)
Difficulty (Boots 1 – 10): 0.5 Boot / 1 Boot
Trail Length: Undetermined / shortest trail to conservation area is about 200 yards
How Long it Took Us: 2 hours
Overview: Alright. Ready? I’m gonna attempt to break this area down and also serve it the long-forgotten justice it deserves, SO – bear with me. If you’re looking for just the basics of this hike, skip down to What We Dug. Otherwise strap in, ’cause off we go…
In 1972, Raynard Getty, a high school science teacher, began developing 50 acres behind the Dalton school into a conservation area. In conjunction with classroom studies, Wahconah students, alongside Getty, worked on extensive plans to create a wildlife refuge, 4 1/2 miles of nature trails, two tree farms, a large fieldstone fireplace, and a small pond. A teacher truly ahead of his time,
Getty described his vision as, “a quiet area where students can go to think and meditate.“
Students constructed a 22-foot bridge over a drainage ditch that same year. In 1975, the U.S. Navy “Seabees” helped the students dig a 1/2 acre farm pond. Maple, chestnut and other trees were planted with intention of fostering a tree nursery. It’s aim was two-fold, to provide replacement trees to the town and give young people the knowledge of tree care from the ground up. Seven large fieldstone planters were built by students and filled with numerous flower varietals they had been consciously raising indoors. Brush was cut and cleared (teenagers with chainsaws!), benches built, and large stones were relocated to create stone walls. All of this structured towards specific goals, but with kids being the integral part of the program.
Then in 1981, at the age of 52, Getty passed suddenly of a heart attack. He may have only succeeded in developing 20 of the 50 acres planned, but his gifts to the community far exceeded that. What he left behind were inspired students who had learned everlasting skills of perseverance, consideration, and stewardship to take with them into adulthood. An enormous feat for a man with just a humble plan. Later that year, various science classes conceptualized and created a nature trail in Getty’s honor. Together they located, identified, and described 21 different points of interest within the conservation area and trail. Trail markers were built and erected and informational pamphlets were made and distributed at the area’s memorial.
It’s been said that, to hear is to forget, to see is to remember and to do is to understand.
Mr. Getty organized and bonded with these students to give them a chance to work outdoors and learn first-hand about caring for the environment. He helped them build something of value, transforming and nurturing the woods surrounding their school.
With the Earth’s current environmental future in a precarious balance, let this serve as a reminder to how impactful a mentor can be.
Over the years, much of this area has not seen the level of care intended for it, nor have steps been taken to complete Raynard Getty’s vision. The pond is overgrown, trails are no longer marked, and any points of interest have been reclaimed by the woods. Most recently, local Eagle Scouts cleaned up the main conservation area. Led by high school senior Jack Minella, they also built new benches and additional raised beds. With the new school year just beginning, perhaps new efforts will be put forth to rejuvenate such a unique and worthy space. Maybe all it’s waiting for is that one special voice to spark change.
With all of this (so much this), being said, do not expect one of those map at the trailhead, blazes on every 8th tree, kinda hike. For this one, you’ll have to use a tiny amount of self-navigation but your efforts will be well rewarded. The main trails here are wide, well-trodden, and generally all circle back around to one school or the other. But be aware that they are not marked! Even if you can’t find your way out of a paper bag, the conservation area alone is worth the trip. Pull up a bench, take in your surroundings, and meditate for a minute on what one man’s fleeting influence can do for the world.
What We Dug: We drove to Nessacus Middle School and chose to drive around to the back of the school, past the basketball and tennis courts, where a few parking spaces face a large wooded area. (School was out for the summer). Once out of the car, you’ll see a large open space containing a drainage dug-out to the right of a utility garage. We spent some sunshine-y minutes rolling down this grassy hill and picking dandelions. After getting good and dizzy (1 roll was all it took, holy motion sickness batman!), we started off down a familiar ramble. Most Daltonians know of the path I’m referencing, a shortcut taken by many on Friday night during football season. For others, if you stand in the field with your back to the school, the trail I speak of will be facing you and difficult to miss.
Following a (very) short trek, the trees will begin to open up and you will find yourself in the wide open green of the Getty Memorial Conservation Area. If you continue straight over a small wooden bridge you will see Wahconah High School and it’s football field directly in front of you.
Now you’re probably thinking, “that’s it?” “Less than a 2 minute walk?” WAIT. There’s more. We spent some time exploring the conservation area. At that time it hadn’t undergone any maintenance and the pond bridge and other parts were overgrown. After a snack (BECAUSE ALWAYS), we took a left onto a wide trail. There are no markers or blazes on these paths and many offshoots. However, it would be VERY (not impossible, but…) difficult to get lost. With the two school bookending this forested space and the Housatonic river cutting through to the east, regaining your bearings is fairly simple. Most of the trails spit you out at the backside of one school or the other.
In recent years, the trails have seen the addition of outdoor exercise equipment distributed within the woods. Pull up bars, parallel bars, and balance beams became instant jungle gyms for the kids. Searching for the next one kept attentions from flagging. Winding around the side of the schools is the East Branch of the Housatonic river. Through a dense and impressive pine grove you can (carefully) climb down a small embankment to the gravelly-edge of the river. Here we skipped stones and examined abandoned stonefly nymph exoskeletons that they leave stuck to sunny rocks. Heading back to the trails and we found ourselves back at Nessacus, at the edge of an expansive soccer field. To round out a low-impact adventure, the kids chose to run around the basketball courts. Far be it from me to refuse an opportunity to release some MORE energy (like, how. is. it. possible.)
What We Could Do Without: The lack of defined and marked trails make this less accessible for anyone who may be unfamiliar with the area. It would be so wonderful to see Raynard Getty’s full vision brought to life.
Keep Your Eyes Peeled For: Hemlock, white pine, milkweed, monarchs, crayfish, stonefly nymphs
Must Know Before You Go’s: There are no trailheads. No markers or blazes. Be aware that barring summer months, both schools are in session. Wahconah High School is currently undergoing construction. Parking there is not recommended. Due to Covid-19, re-opening of these schools is still unclear, but use sound judgement. Summer and weekends are the best time to explore these trails. No facilities.
Directions: 35 Fox Rd, Dalton, MA 01226 (Nessacus Middle School)
150 Old Windsor Rd, Dalton, MA 01226 (Wahconah High School) Be advised that Wahconah High School is currently undergoing massive construction and parking there is not recommended.
*Entrances to all trails are towards the back ends of both schools.
Scroll through for more photos of our Gettys Conservation Area Adventure!