Take Me to the River

The spiders of the Upper Charles still chase me in my nightmares. What could be a deer tick — I was never sure — still climbs the leg of my subconscious. A great blue heron flaps its gawky wings, beckoning me to fight through one more backyard thicket, cross one more slippery bridge, in the hope that this itchy journey will lead me to a tasty lunch, a feeling of connection to all things natural, and a quiet sunset.

I admit now I was wrong when I declared that I could walk the full length of the Charles River. I had just read A Walk in the Woods, the story of a writer who hikes the Appalachian Trail with a paunchy, wisecracking pal. I figured I could do the same thing along the Charles, all 80 miles of it, from the river's source to Boston Harbor — although without the funny fat guy.

I soon discovered that there was a difference, however. A big difference. The Appalachian Trail is, upon a not-too-close reading of the name, understood to be a trail. The Charles River has trails, but there's no guarantee they'll connect.

I also hadn't really anticipated the “No Trespassing” signs or the sucking mud of the 2,700-acre Medfield swamp. I had given little thought to how I would cross the Mass. Pike or what kind of armor I might need to escape, unbloodied, through the impenetrable tangle of woods along some of the Charles's banks.

Nonetheless, I was optimistic when I set out downstream. I walked through backyards and over highways, under train tracks, through a rest stop that purportedly doubles as a gay pickup spot, and along the back nine of a public golf course. I walked over dams, across bridges and trestles, along Route 1 — even, at times, in the riverbed itself. When I couldn't walk, I paddled, drove, bummed a ride on a bass boat, or took the T.

What I learned surprised me. The river is cleaner and more accessible than it's been in centuries. It's boatworthy nearly every day, and swimmable most. Despite warnings from many caring people, I even drank some of it and lived.

A system of riverside paths will soon extend from Boston Harbor through the Charles River Basin, past Watertown and Waltham and Newton, all the way to West Roxbury. The basin is due for a $100 million overhaul that will add enhancements to the Cambridge side and a whole lot of polish to what is already a gem. Upriver, conservationists are negotiating to attach part of the sprawling Medfield State Hospital campus to the Trustees of Reservations' portfolio of preserved river frontage. Towns like Bellingham and Franklin are looking at ways to thwart the most significant threat to the river's cleanliness, polluted storm runoff from streets and parking lots.

The news isn't all great. At its source, the river is barely a trickle; during some dry periods, it's fed as much by the discharge from sewage treatment plants as by natural sources. River frontage is often a confusing tangle of private ownership. There are surprisingly few places to rent a canoe. Closer to the city, it's hard to walk many of the new paths without hearing the hum of a major roadway. And aside from a few well-known spots where the river cuts through urban centers, there aren't many places to eat. Even the venerable Mill Falls restaurant has fallen by the wayside. On the other hand, you're never out of cell phone range and can always make reservations for a table back in town.

The Charles River is an extraordinary recreational resource running through the very heart of Greater Boston. Yet those of us who live along it generally haven't taken full advantage of it. Most of us would be hard-pressed even to say where it begins.

Which is where I began my walk.

Echo Lake, a reservoir on the border between Milford and Hopkinton, is a pine-ringed mirror, dammed with Milford pink granite quarried by immigrant Italian stonecutters. It is supplied by feeder streams, rainwater, and snowmelt. A steady trickle springs from the dam and descends a mound of boulders to form the first halting flow of the Charles, which looks more like a dirty backyard creek here than a river. During dry summers, the river unimpressively disappears after a few feet, heading underground like a hibernating salamander.

I climbed down the rocks and followed an old railroad track along the riverbed, occasionally venturing into the poison ivy rimming the dry bank, hopping back and forth across where the river should have been. It meandered through a parade of small towns lifted from the high school football roster — Milford, Hopedale, Bellingham, Medway — and occasionally backed up to ancient dams and ponds encircled tightly by suburban neighborhoods.

As recently as 30 years ago, much of this land was devoted to farming. Then spiraling home prices close to Boston and the growth of high-tech sprawl spurred families in their minivans to go west. The paved, exurban growth has sapped the river's ability to recharge naturally: Its aquifers are drained by town wells and sewers, and in a couple of spots where the Charles is fed, it's fed by those towns' processed sewage.

Just outside Milford, on a street where the Charles — still more creek than river — flows beneath a small wooden bridge, I met George Torosian. Torosian, who runs a roadside farm stand, is as knobby as the vegetables he sells. He came out snacking on an eggplant he had dipped in yolk and fried in a pan, threw a few extra cucumbers into the bag of vegetables I bought, and explained how the river ran through his youth.

“We used to fish on the Charles River in Bellingham for trout,” he said. “They would come right up to you. They'd stock it by Natick, and their natural spawning would take them up the brook. It was the only place you felt serene. Then they built [Interstate] 495, and you could hear the road all the time.” Torosian, like his memories of those quieter days, drifted off to an afternoon nap as I left him to continue my journey.

I was about to drift off, too. Below Populatic Pond on the border of Norfolk and Franklin, the river turns into a walker's nightmare — and a paddler's paradise. There are nearly 20 miles of marsh, swamp, and forest that, in shoes, will take you down into sucking mud. In a boat it takes you through the towns of Norfolk, Millis, Sherborn, and Dover.

Preferring to float rather than sink, I went for the boat. Just a few minutes after pushing my kayak from the shore at Dover Road in Millis, I was making great time down the smooth, undulating river. (There are also good boat launches at Needham's Red Wing Bay off Fisher Street, Newton's Riverside Park Canoe Launch off Nonantum Road, and Allston's Herter Park, and near the B.U. bridge in Cambridge.) The Millis marsh is the Charles River Natural Valley Storage Area, a 3,221-acre flood plain owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. At times of heavy rain, the water overflows the banks here, spreading out to almost half a mile in width.

In the late 1960s, Congress authorized a new dam at the mouth of the Charles to control flooding. The Corps of Engineers later realized that it was more cost-effective to preserve wetlands around Milford and Millis and changed its tack from drying out the habitat to buying more and letting the water spread across it at times of heavy rain — a kind of natural flood control.

Next came Rocky Narrows Reservation, a breezy rock beach. I got out of my kayak and walked the two-mile trail up to Rocky Narrows Overlook, which revealed a panorama of the snaking river. While the riverbanks are usually low and covered with plants — duckweed and purple loosestrife (that ubiquitous lavender bud you see all over the shores) — the Narrows are a mini-Maine, all cliffs and trees and heft.

As Rocky Narrows ends, the Massachusetts Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary at Broadmoor begins, a menagerie of 150 kinds of birds whipping through 500 species of plants over 788 acres of woodland. Broadmoor is as good a stretch of walking as any along the river. It's a time-honored educational outing for families with kids, especially if they like pointing at turtles, ducks, and salamanders along the nine miles of walking trails and boardwalks. Fishing is allowed for sunfish, bass, and pickerel.

Paddling through, I saw more birds than I thought could exist in nature: a hawk, doves, and herons so thin that when they turned to stare, they looked like beaked yardsticks. I spooked cormorants, which stopped fishing and took flight, bopping their feathers against the water as they accelerated.

After floating along for another mile, I arrived at the South Natick Dam, in sight of the landing's lone white goose, a creature that seemed convinced he was entitled to my lunch — an arm-sized steak sub I had just picked up at Corrados South. The tiny sub shop sits across Eliot Street from the riverside Indian burial ground and the Bacon Free Library, whose basement historical museum boasts, among other things, the uniform of a redcoat killed on the first day of the American Revolution. After I had eaten, I rested on the nearby terraced benches, groggily contemplating the long walk ahead.

From South Natick, the Charles heads north into Wellesley before it begins a long, generally eastward swing at the border between Dover and Needham, entering the “Bays Region.” This trip's highlight is the opportunity to cross an old one-lane bridge into Elm Bank, a 182-acre reservation owned by the Metropolitan District Commission. A series of trails ambles along the river, which is shaded by towering pine trees.

In the 1740s, Colonel John Jones took it upon himself to plant the river — and most everyplace else he went — with elms. Two centuries later, most of them would be killed off by Dutch elm disease. In their place, native flora have returned, splashing the banks with red, yellow, and green. Deep inside Elm Bank, there's a much less native field of plants growing: the flowers of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, which moved in a few years ago and now tends to the nine working gardens on the former estate of Benjamin Pierce Cheney, who made his fortune helping to create American Express. The Horticultural Society offers the grounds and carriage house for weddings and gives tours of the small gardener's cottage, library, and experimental flower field.

Across the Charles from Elm Bank, a much less proper venue offers one of the finest riverside views: the Sudbury Aqueduct, a quick scramble uphill from the Nehoiden Golf Course. The aqueduct is spray-painted with the rantings of the area's brightest young stoners, who write addled parables as they watch the sun set over Waban Brook.

A little farther downriver, at Red Wing Bay in Needham, I was about to walk around what some of the guidebooks called a birdwatcher's paradise when a question I'd been hoping to hear for days seemed to come out of thin air — if thin air could shout really loud.

“Do you wanna do some fishing? Do you?”

It wasn't thin air. It was a guy in a Buzzard's Bay Brewing hat talking to his dog, Coco.

The dog's owner, Mike Goodspeed, a fishing enthusiast from Dedham, agreed to let me come aboard his small boat, and for the next three hours he gave me a tour of all the best places in the river to find largemouth bass. (Aim for the reedy parts, close to the banks.) And even though he spends much of his free time pulling fish from the Charles, Goodspeed assured me that he seldom actually eats them.

“Why would I bother cleaning these guys?” he asked. “I can go to the store.”

I decided to follow Goodspeed and restrict my fish intake to what's on sale at the Bread & Circus seafood counter.

From the sun-baked gumdrop mound comprising most of West Roxbury's Millennium Park — built atop a former landfill — you can see the Prudential Center and the John Hancock Tower on one side, the Charles on the other. If you've been walking along the river, you're past the midpoint of your journey, but from here on in, you're connected to the city. You've moved inside Route 128, you've touched Boston — even if the river cuts a long way away from it before it ever comes back.

I came to Millennium Park from the north, walking back up the river with a tall, surprisingly high-voiced man named Bill Giezentanner. While working for the City of Newton in the mid '70s, Giezentanner was one of the first to propose that his town could groom its extensive river frontage into a cohesive series of trails and canoe ramps connecting to the other cities at the river's end.

Millennium Park is owned by the City of Boston, but you can walk to it on MDC paths put together by that agency's resident trailmeister, planner Dan Driscoll. Driscoll is on the verge of establishing his own version of Giezentanner's dream: an official route, mostly along the river, that would encircle Boston starting at the city's eastern edge at Boston Harbor and travel about 23 miles through Cambridge and Watertown, south through the Lakes District in Waltham and Newton, and back into Millennium Park.

To see what that future holds, Giezentanner and I schlepped from Nahanton Park in Newton down to one of the MDC-owned trails. After about 10 minutes, the path unceremoniously dumped us into an office parking lot. We got a little confused, then headed for the closest thing resembling a trail — the sidewalk — which took us to the Solomon Schecter Upper School, which, in turn, put us right back onto the trail.

The area between Nahanton Park and Millennium Park is in the flood plain. In the dry season you can walk out onto a peninsula, stand on the yellow marsh grasses, and be surrounded by acres of trees and river, an unexpected swath of flat-out nature where the only indication of civilization is the forest-muffled noise of Route 128. Across the river, in the highly enjoyable ramble of Cutler Park, the MDC has built a boardwalk through the marsh, making it possible to stand isolated amid eye-high cattails, listening to crickets and cicadas less than a half-mile from the highway.

Giezentanner was excited that the MDC seemed to be picking up where his dusty proposal left off. He saw a freshly erected sign pointing toward Millennium Park. Another arrow showed the way to Brook Farm, a utopian community from the 1800s.

“You get to a point and you say to yourself, well, the river goes on. Why can't I?” said Giezentanner.

Back north of Nahanton, the river takes you through some fine parks. There is Hemlock Gorge, a pocket of local history spanned by Echo Bridge. The aqueduct is beloved by artists for the astonishing perspective it lends to views of Newton Upper Falls, and by children for the echoes that ricochet off it when you stand beneath the bridge and shout.

There is Quinobequin Road, the trail-lined country road linking Upper Falls with Lower Falls, where fishermen and hikers have chopped paths through the trees to steal glimpses of the river.

There is Lower Falls itself, which demonstrates, in miniature, what city life can be like when it's built around a river. Sandwiched between Newton and Wellesley, the Charles flows flat and wide here alongside green lawns. The stone bridge over the Finlay Dam invites walkers to gaze out over the water's surface at the reflections of willow trees. The resident hot dog stand is mobbed by local construction workers and office types alike who come for the $1.75 steamed dogs.

And there's the trail I took from Lower Falls, hacking through the woods behind the Leo J. Martin Memorial Golf Course and across two abandoned train trestles — over both Route 128 and the Mass. Pike — as cars whizzed underneath at rush hour. I skirted around the back of a forlorn MBTA graveyard filled with idled Green Line cars, finally reaching the water again at Riverside Park.

Those who work nearby say Riverside Park has evolved into a round-the-clock pickup scene for gay men. I stumbled onto the park rumpled from the trail, a little dirty, wearing wraparound shades and an “X-Marks-the-Spot.com” T-shirt, saw this wasn't the recreation I was looking for, and moved on to the Lakes District. Here a canoe rental company, Charles River Canoe & Kayak, occupies a former MDC police station, storing its boats in the station's one-time holding cells. The canoes and kayaks for rent are the ideal vessels for exploring the coves formed by the Moody Street Dam.

There was something else that caught my attention at the Moody Street Dam: a brisket sandwich from Jake & Earl's Dixie Roadhouse of such tangy, smoky, gut-bombing proportions that it almost left me sleeping on a nearby bench. I soldiered through the broad expanse of one of the river's industrial stretches, by the Waltham Watch Factory and past two bridges, until the trail ended at a dynamite discovery, Mount Feake Cemetery.

Self-guided walking tours of the cemetery highlight the grave of the most famous person buried here: Effie C. Carlton, the composer of “Rock-a-Bye Baby.” For a graveyard, it's a great place for a date: It's been selected by the local paper as the most romantic spot in Waltham. It's also, apparently, a great place for a run — the Brandeis cross-country team practices here, running along the river and up and over the cemetery's small, lovely hills.

Back downstream, the river widens and begins its commute into Boston through the backyards of the communities on either side of it.

The MDC's Dan Driscoll has been cleaning and reclaiming the public land around the Charles for a dozen years, and the day we met was no exception. Already that morning, he had waded to the base of the Watertown Dam, wearing a pair of sandals and golf gloves, to free a trapped gull.

It was an obvious metaphor for the kind of job he's done at freeing up the river as it heads through the section between Commonwealth Avenue in Newton and Watertown Square. At the cost of about a million dollars a mile, Driscoll has persuaded 90 businesses and residents to give up encroachments on MDC land that had gotten away through benign neglect. And he's gotten his money's worth: The trails along the river look like a million bucks.

“It's hard to believe,” Driscoll says. “This is one of the densest places on the river in terms of urban development, but it's also one of the best places to have a completely natural experience.”

The river broadens beyond the Watertown Dam, and so does the variety of activities available along it. The basin is the Charles as we know it downtown, its massive python-digesting-a-gopher head dwarfing the thin coil of its 80-mile tail. (It was actually once even wider, a fetid, saltwater tidal river until a dam was built at its mouth in 1910 behind what is now the FleetCenter, and its embankments filled in and straightened on both sides.)

Before, each stop presented one or two great things to do. Here, you could do it all. At points, the river is a half-mile across, lined with playing fields and tennis courts and jogging trails galore. You can drop your kids at Community Boating to let them sail all summer for the princely sum of a dollar. You can drop yourself at Community Rowing and experience the crisp drama of a morning's scull.

The basin is far from an idyll, however. Parts are rubbed raw from use. The MDC pool on the Memorial Drive side is a great spot to watch a sunset, but it's littered with beer bottles and, oddly, laundry detergent. None of the yacht clubs will let you in for a cocktail if you're not a member. Cars roar along the river drives, cutting into the quiet.

Walking along the basin, my solitary trek turned crowded. Just after I passed the Hatch Shell but before the ice-cream stands and sunbathers thinned out in the concrete sprawl, I pulled a newspaper out of my backpack, sat on a bench, and joined them. I was home, but now home stretched a long way back, to the pine trees ringing Echo Lake. There's a lot of backyard between here and there.