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One of the country's largest man-made public water supplies, Quabbin Reservoir dominates the landscape in Western Massachusetts. Supplying much of the drinking water to the greater Boston area, the reservoir is heavily protected by its surroundings with the aim of providing pure water to Massachusetts residents.
Completed in 1939 with the goal of a natural gravity-fed water supply suitable for a growing population, Quabbin Reservoir forced considerable change to the landscape left by early colonial settlers. Four towns disappeared beneath the waters of the new Quabbin, their ancestral graves removed to higher ground, and many of their buildings either moved or dismantled. In place of the former towns of Enfield, Dana, Prescott and Greenwich, nearly 40% of all Massachusetts residents now have a permanent water supply and a source of outdoor recreation.
Quabbin Reservoir covers more than 24,000 acres of water surrounded by 56,000 acres of protected watershed. The reservoir lies in the Swift River Valley, where three branches of the river were impounded by the Goodnough Dike and the Winsor Dam to produce the large lake. Careful planning to incorporate forested protection for the watershed assures that the water remains clean. And, although a ban on body contact with the water prohibits swimming, a good-sized park offers walking trails, bicycling and water views provided by an observation tower. Fishing is permitted in certain areas of the reservoir between May and October, with provisions for shoreline fishing offered in selected areas.
Quabbin Park, located at the south end of the reservoir, is the only area accessible by vehicle and serves as the access point for all park activities. The wooded setting houses a Visitors Center, the observation tower, miles of walking trails, cycling paths and the Quabbin Park Cemetery-the new resting place of the old settlers. Recent archeological surveys have shown that a large number of sites, both Native American and colonial habitation, need further study within the park, adding to the rich history of the region.
Surrounded by the Quabbin Reservation forests, wildlife is plentiful in the park and surrounding woods. Several islands in the reservoir are off-limits to visitors and serve as nesting areas for bald eagles and loons. Recently, biological proof of the presence of a cougar in the reservation was found, leading wildlife experts to rethink their estimates of the animals' possible range and populations. Bird watching and sighting deer, rabbit, coyote, raccoon, squirrel and other common forest dwellers is a favored activity among visitors who bring their binoculars and hiking boots. Deer have become overly-plentiful, so a restricted deer hunt is organized each year with permits issued by lottery. With hunters restricted to specific areas, deer populations remain manageable.
Because invasive species could endanger the healthy ecosystem, strict boat inspection measures are required by law for private boats. Many avoid the issue by renting fishing boats from the Quabbin Park staff. Three staffed boat ramps are located around the reservoir. Boat motor requirements keep all boats below a 25 hp maximum. The same concern for possible infestation by invasive species has led to a complete ban on private canoes, kayaks, pontoons, inflatable boats and sailboats; kayaks and canoes can be rented from the Park. Several small ponds within the park permit hand-carried canoes and kayaks, either for fishing or pleasant paddling.
The reservoir holds a variety of healthy game fish including lake trout, brown trout, rainbow trout, brook trout, landlocked salmon, chain pickerel, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, perch and smaller panfish. Either a Massachusetts fishing license or a one-day Quabbin fishing permit is required for fishing. The latter can be obtained at the boat launch sites. Landing anywhere on shore other than the designated launch sites is prohibited. Portable rest room facilities are located at these launch sites.
The surrounding hundreds of forested acres can be explored by car on the main roads or by bicycle. Bicycles must remain on the marked bicycle paths, and mountain biking off-trail is not permitted in most areas. Walking and wildlife viewing is permitted, but strict rules prevent any type of camping or activities that could make any permanent imprint on the delicate environment. Maps of the biking and walking paths are available online and at the Visitors Center. Forestry management personnel maintain the health of the forest and decree which trees must be removed. Maintaining the healthy forest offers a natural filter for any water draining into the lake. A local group called Friends of the Quabbin consists of volunteers dedicated to promoting awareness and appreciation regarding both the natural and historical resources contained within the reservoir and reservation. Several of the buildings that sat on the boundary of the reservation have been preserved with house historical records and period furnishings.
Quabbin Reservoir is an interesting example of using best practices to maintain a pristine watershed. There are no private homes or forms of lodgings along the reservoir's nearly 120-mile shoreline. However, outside of the reservation's boundaries, a busy Massachusetts semi-suburban countryside offers every type of amenity and service. Most of Quabbin Reservation lies in the town of Petersham. The Petersham Center is a small business district among a widely-spread suburban landscape with restaurants, quaint inns and a bed & breakfast or two. The town of Ware, directly south of the reservoir, offers several large hotels, many small inns, and local guest houses.
The largest nearby city is Worcester, a major city filled with museums, art galleries and shopping venues. Among the cultural attractions at Worcester, the Higgins Armory Museum, Worcester Center for Crafts, Museum of Science & Nature, and Worcester Art Museum stand out. The surrounding area is filled with outdoor adventures such as kayaking at Athol, winter ski hills at Shrewsbury, Tower Hill Botanic Gardens at Boylston, and Old Sturbridge Village. Inns, campgrounds and unique lodging adventures and activities are found throughout this historic landscape. As this area has been settled since early in the 1700s, a great many historic points of interest and local historical societies can occupy many days of American History exploration for the history buff.
A visit to Quabbin Reservoir and Quabbin Reservation should be a priority on any visit to Western Massachusetts. It is here one can discover how progress has changed the landscape and the lives of the inhabitants. Rent a kayak and try for a trout, or simply walk the trails and enjoy the sounds of birds and the natural serenity produced by the quiet landscape. Contemplate the great age of some of the graves in Quabbin Park Cemetery and reflect on the changes to this frontier area over 300 years of settlement. Is that a fife and drum you hear, or simply the murmur of the water at the spillway?
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