Belchertown trail adds sensory aspect to hiking

  • Louise Levy stands at the trail head of the Lake Wallace Sensory Trail off Whitlock Way with buildings of the old Belchertown State School behind her. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The lake Wallace Sensory Trail off Whitlock Way in Belchertown. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Fernando Molina stands on the observation deck of the Lake Wallace Sensory Trail off Whitlock Way in Belchertown. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The view from the observation deck of the Lake Wallace Sensory Trail off Whitlock Way in Belchertown. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Louise Levy demonstrates how the wire could be used on the Lake Wallace Sensory Trail off Whitlock Way, with buildings of the old Belchertown State School behind her. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A sign on the Lake Wallace Sensory Trail off Whitlock Way in Belchertown. The sign combines images, writings and brail and well as a knob indicating to some one using the guide wire a sign is there. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Stones which were steps in the buildings of the Old Belchertown State School indicate a change in the Lake Wallace Sensory Trail off Whitlock Way in Belchertown. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The view from a point off the Lake Wallace Sensory Trail in Belchertown. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Gazette Staff
Published: 9/8/2022 9:01:16 PM
Modified: 9/8/2022 8:57:31 PM

BELCHERTOWN — The area along Lake Wallace, long referred to as the “swamp behind the police station,” has gained new terrain with the opening of the town’s newest trails.

Nestled along the Skate Park and the wetlands at the edge of the former Belchertown State School, now known as Carriage Grove, is the Lake Wallace Sensory Trail.

The trail, a community-driven multi-phased project five years in the making, opened with a celebratory event Aug. 29 with more than 50 people in attendance. The trail is the beginning of what is hoped to become the townwide Belchertown Heritage Trails Network.

“We had 50 to 60 people there. It was a really good turnout and everyone seemed to be having a good time and duly impressed,” said Town Planner Doug Albertson. “There’s been a tremendously positive reaction.”

Construction of the half-mile portion of the trail began in June 2021. The cost of this first phase of the project, which includes Community Preservation Act funds and local fundraising efforts, surpassed $200,000.

Initially, the proposal included the development of a basic walking trail near the lake and the former State School, but with community input and involvement like that of Vicky Martins-Auffrey of Team Jessica, who helped bring Jessica’s Boundless Playground to life in honor of her daughter, the project evolved to make the trail accessible to all ages and abilities.

Albertson and Conservation Administrator Erica Larner have been working with Andrew Kilduff, project manager, and MJ Halberstadt, design associate, both of New York-based design, development and consulting firm Terra Genesis International, to bring this trail to fruition.

“As a community, we are so excited to offer another accessible recreational opportunity to our roster,” said Select Board Chairwoman Jen Turner. “This beautiful trail has opened up access to an underutilized space and has made it welcoming to our residents and visitors to enjoy the natural beauty of the area, as well as provide educational opportunities.”

Recognizing lives lived

The design originates from an effort to both celebrate Lake Wallace, and recognize the significance of its location on the site of the former Belchertown State School, according to Louise Levy, the Belchertown Public Schools liaison to the Lake Wallace Sensory Trail.

“One of the hopes for the trail is that it changes people’s perceptions, not only of the Lake Wallace area, but also of the possibilities of the redevelopment of the State School,” said Levy, “ — and that possibility of building a new positive narrative to the town around the space to recognize the lives that were lived here.”

On a recent tour of the new trail, Levy, who teaches science at Belchertown High School, detailed specific species of flora and fauna as well as the features that make the trail so accessible.

The path of the trail is wide and has a gently sloping course to enable those who use wheelchairs or walkers a safe traverse through the course, she said.

Along the path are tactile markings, which are intended to guide those who are blind or visually impaired safely from one place to another. Among those markings is a wrapped cable mounted on posts throughout the length of the trail with knobs indicating an upcoming sign with information.

“There are also these blocks, which are the steps of some of the buildings (from the State School) that were torn down, along the path. And so wherever these blocks are, to somebody who is visually impaired, they’ll feel it,” she said. “And that’s an indication that something on the trail is changing.”

The trail is also equipped with signs that combine images, writings and braille to alert users of upcoming observation areas.

For more than a decade, Levy has taken her students out on excursions around Lake Wallace. She said that having the trail in place with specific observation stations specifically oriented toward elements of the landscape provides a learning laboratory of sorts.

“I mean, this is like, absolutely transformative,” she said standing on an observation deck. “It really highlights how fabulous this lake is.”

Levy also helped with crafting language on the signs at the learning stations.

“This landscape formed when a massive chunk of ice broke free from a receding glacier some 16,000 years ago,” she said. “As the ice slowly melted, and meltwater flowed around it, the unique depression of the lake and its surroundings were formed.”

In October, Levy will be teaching a land science unit where students will learn about reading a map, drawing a map, and land-use practices. Students will also be asked to come up with a creative proposal for the continued redevelopment of the State School. Once the ideas are collected, Levy said, she will be bringing them to the planning board.

While there has already been some damage to some of the signs and removal of the tactile markings as well as some vandalism to the decks, members of the town and project team are trying to repair the damage. To report an area that needs maintenance, the Friends of the Lake Wallace Sensory Trail group encourages people to fill out a form at lwsensorytrail.org/maintenance-report.

In the fall, the designs for phases 2 and 3 of the project, which extend the current trail, will be finalized, according to Albertson.

Phase 2 includes the creation of a large loop around Foley Field with an observation platform overlooking the lake and a bridge to the hiking trails, and phase 3 is an extension that connects Foley Field with an observation point overlooking the Mount Holyoke Range.

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com.
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