On a recent Monday morning, 18 hikers gathered at the entrance to the Monson Center conservation area, near the Milford/Hollis border. Most were retirees, free of Monday morning obligations, but a few were stay-at-home moms, and one was a middle schooler enjoying a three-day weekend. Some came from only a few miles away, while others had traveled an hour or more.
They set off down a path lined with old stone walls, with Celeste Barr in the lead.
Barr is the education director at the Beaver Brook Association, a non-profit devoted to environmental education and conservation. Seven years ago, BBA started offering Friday fitness hikes on different trails around the region, on lands conserved by a range of organizations. Three years ago, a less strenuous option on Monday mornings was added.
While a few of the hikers this morning said they preferred the shorter, slower Monday hikes, many of the others were also regulars at the Friday hikes.
The fitness hikes begin in September and run through late April. BBA provides crampons when there is ice and snowshoes when there is snow.
The idea, Barr said, is to help people get outside after summer comes to an end.
“It’s walking proof of what scientists say about exercise and serotonin,” she explained, with a nod toward the upbeat group behind her.
When the hikers reached the treeline, Barr stopped to share some brief background on the area, which is protected by the New Hampshire Society for the Protection of Forests. The 3-mile trail loops through what was once the town of Monson, founded in the late 1700s and dissolved after about 40 years. All that remains of the town is a handful of pits lined with rocks, which Barr identified as cellar holes, and the restored “Gould House” that now serves as an information kiosk (and, a few of the returning hikers noted, the purported location of at least one ghost sighting). This town’s downfall, Barr explained, was that the residents never managed to build a meetinghouse and create a cohesive community.
The hikers talked about their children and grandchildren, work on their houses, the previous night’s Patriots game and the upcoming return of Downton Abbey.
“A lot of these people have been hiking together for three years, so you can hear a lot of happy chatter,” added Beth Baryiames, BBA’s assistant education director.
Baryiames told Holly Cerpovicz, the newest hiker, about where she has seen mink tracks in the winter, and when the group paused at a pair of ponds separated by a beaver dam, the hikers counted heron nests.
“I think this is a great alternative to a gym,” Cerpovicz said. “I need to get the exercise, I wouldn’t want to walk on these trails by myself, and it’s a great group of people.”
Dave Duncan, a long-time member of the group, said he too appreciates the social and the fitness elements of the hiking program.
“I would normally gain 15 pounds in the winter, but you go out on a nice, crisp morning, and rain or shine there are 15 or 20 people,” he said.
Facing fall and winter weather in good company, Baryiames added, is the best way to take on the colder months.
“Other people are walking around grumpy all winter, and we have a smile on our face because we’ve been outside,” she said.