NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

January 17, 2014

Trekking through the snow

Andover's Cochran Sanctuary the perfect setting for a winter adventure

Outdoorsing the North Shore
Justin Chase

---- — With subsiding wind and fresh snow, it was time to get out and play in the winter landscape before it melted away. Looking to explore something a bit different, we headed to the Moncrieff Cochran Sanctuary at Phillips Academy in Andover. With more than 65 acres and several miles of rolling trails, grounds reminiscent of grand old estates that once graced New England were the setting for our snowshoeing adventure.

Donated to the school by alumnus Thomas Cochran in 1929 and named after his brother, the sanctuary hosts a simple network of primary and secondary trails, stone arch bridges, controlled waterways, and carefully selected plantings throughout. They all work together to create an elegant, sprawling piece of land; a safe haven for wildlife; and perfect family-sized hiking routes. Open to the public, yet nestled inside one of New England’s most elegant campuses, the sanctuary is a bit of a local secret.

Arriving at the trailhead in the heart of campus, we gathered our gear in bright sun and arrestingly cold air. Walking toward the old stone and wood “Walkers’ Gate,” our boys scurried ahead and puffed clouded breaths in the cold. Memorial Bell Tower chimed in the distance, adding warm tones to the sounds of our boots crunching in ice and squeaking through fresh, fluffy snow.

We stopped to put on our snowshoes ahead of deeper snow, fumbling with numb fingers, checking straps and clips, and adjusting kid-sized trekking poles. In surprisingly short order, we were off and shoeing.

The trail rose up a small berm and turned to follow a drumlin’s tail and natural ridgeline. Larches and oaks stood among decades-old rhododendrons. Skiers swished by as our boys ran ahead, leaving a white cloud of kicked-up powder in their wake. Being respectful to stay off the skiers’ trail, we made our way down to an old stone bridge that crossed an open stream and overlooked a large, frozen pond.

Climbing over and under the bridge, we explored the old 1920s architecture and partially frozen stream over which it arched. Silence was broken only by water trickling over ice and an occasional thud of tall pines dumping their snow load to a gentle breeze. As lovely as it all was, we pushed on to stay warm.

The kids led the way, falling and striding along a gently rolling trail. Shoeing atop powdery snow, we moved together through a mix of pine, birch and creaking hemlock and over to a patch of rhododendrons that grew out over the trail. We rested in warm sun, talking of the plant’s still-green, downward-pointing, winter leaves and its cheery, pink flowers that will fluff open to spring.

Continuing our loop through the sanctuary, we veered off trail and shoed across a frozen, sunny pond. Snow crystals sparkled and swirled gently in a breeze too subtle to feel while we made our way across creaking and cracking ice. The far shore on the sunny side greeted us with a small thicket of grasses and weeds up which we climbed clumsily with snowshoes and poles.

Before returning to the trailhead, we stopped to explore a felled tree that rested with roots and soil, intact and exposed. Layers of sand, gravel and moss helped piece together its life story, from seedling to stately oak. Green moss crusted with snow and ice hung like a heavy blanket over roots layered with mushrooms and decay.

Late-afternoon sun shone brightly through tall trees and clouds of windswept snow as we neared the end of our adventure. Our young snowshoers teetered the last bit of trail and plopped at the end — exhausted, pleased and red-cheeked from their day. A little under two miles is a long way to go in deep snow with short legs and tiny snowshoes!

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Justin Chase is an avid naturalist who lives in Amesbury and grew up in Newburyport. He is the author of the blog Outdoors, By Cracky! Visit his website at www.outdoorsbycracky.com, or contact him via email at justin@outdoorsbycracky.com.

If you go

What: Moncrieff Cochran Sanctuary

Where: End of Chapel Avenue (off Main Street), Andover

When: Gate open daily from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.

More information: www.andover.edu/communityvisitors/campusattractions or http://andovertrails.org/cochran.html