FALL RIVER — There are ghosts in Fall River’s woods, but they’re not invisible.
They’re in the stone walls snaking through the dense woods of the Watuppa Reservation, centuries-old outlines that divided what was once cleared farmland. Ghosts linger in the Native American names you’ll find all over the Bioreserve: Copicut, Quanipaug, Watuppa, Massasoit. They’re in the old Yankee names that followed them: Dr. Nathan Durfee’s Mill Pond, Clint Davis Trail, Miller Lane. The spirits of the past are inside the timeworn stones that carry hikers across streams, the paths someone cut through the wilderness untold decades ago, the foundations of houses now consumed by thick moss and forest.
The ghosts are Fall River’s history, and in the city’s vast eastern woodland, you can touch them, see them. They live still.
‘The devil worship place’
I’m meeting city forester Mike Labossiere for a hike through the woods off Quanipaug Road, an unpaved dirt lane deep in the Southeastern Massachusetts Bioreserve that runs along the north shore of the Copicut Reservoir. Unless you have a four-wheel drive or a mountain bike, you should drive through Dartmouth to get there. Just as I’m slinging my backpack over a shoulder, my sister calls me, and I tell her I have to go — I’m meeting a guy in the forest.
“The forest?” she says. “You mean ‘the forest’ forest? The devil worship place?”
“Mm-hmm,” I say.
Satan worshippers aren’t often found performing their fiendish blood rites at 10 a.m. on a Tuesday, but her reaction is common around here. We’ve watched the recent Epix channel documentary series “Fall River” about the so-called “Satanic cult murders” from 1979 and 1980, where the remains of two young women were found in Fall River’s woods. Both were much more likely the victims of abusive, drug-addicted criminal psychopaths than sacrificial lambs to appease Lucifer — but spooky legends about killings, corpses, curses and pukwudgies have dogged Fall River’s woods ever since. It’s kept too many people from hiking in Fall River’s eastern half, a huge expanse of square mileage packed with history and natural beauty.
Everett Castro, director of community affairs for the local environmental group Green Futures, has been fighting these superstitions for years. He describes a talk he once gave to the Tuesday Club of Freetown when advocating for the creation of the Bioreserve.
“The women all had stories. They had stories of being girls in Freetown and going to dance around the maypole on May Day in the state forest. Going out to the forest to pick wild cherries and blueberries,” Castro says. “And then they all looked horrid and said they would never go there today — because, of course, this was basically because of Carl Drew and that whole murder thing. And they were petrified to go in the forest. And that’s continued.”
The Epix series explored how Satanic Panic of the late 1970s and early ‘80s infected Fall River, fueled by fear of crime and drugs, and pushed into the mainstream culture by people who were misinformed, easily persuaded, self-promoters — sometimes a mix of all of the above. Believers in the paranormal have labeled Fall River’s forest as part of the “Bridgewater Triangle,” a place haunted by every kind of superstition from Bigfoot to pterodactyls to UFOs. All that, and its physical remoteness combined with the fact that many roads here are unpaved, have kept the Bioreserve from being fully appreciated to the degree of other state parks.
I ask Castro if he’s ever seen a pterodactyl in the state forest. It’s my job to ask.
“No, no pterodactyls,” he says.
“It hurts me personally, because I’m so involved in this, when I see people afraid to go out there, thinking there’s devil worshippers and Satanic baloney,” Castro says. “This area is rife with that, and it’s basically because we are an environmentally ignorant area. It’s a shame.”
‘We are poised to do something really special’
There is a pukwudgie in the forest, but it’s not a supernatural imp. It’s me: a short, hairy, Portuguese creature covered in bug spray and sunscreen, bumbling along behind Labossiere as he moves swiftly along a lightly marked path through the Bioreserve.
The Southeastern Massachusetts Bioreserve is 16,000 acres of forest and water— larger than some national parks — a patchwork of different properties owned and managed by several entities. The state Department of Conservation and Recreation manages much of the land. A piece is owned by the Trustees of Reservations, a nonprofit environmental group. MassWildlife manages some land, and Buzzards Bay Coalition has a tiny piece. The City of Fall River owns about 5,000 acres, some available for recreation and some used to protect our two water supplies: the North Watuppa Pond and the Copicut Reservoir.
Labossiere works for the city Water Department, though he spends much of his time among the trees. I’d need a map, but he knows these paths like people know Route 6. After a short hike, he leads me to a narrow stream where gallons of clear fresh water flow past.
“It’s all about keeping the forest healthy. … It’s purifying the water,” he says. “And this is heading down to the Copicut Reservoir. And this is clean. This doesn’t cost anything. Nature did that for us. The cleaner we deliver the water to the reservoir, the less costly it is to treat the water at the other end.”
We’re 6 miles as the crow flies from downtown Fall River. The only sounds are birdsong, the murmur of water rushing past our feet, the wind sighing through leaves. Although long stereotyped as a city of tenements and potholes, easily half of the city of Fall River is actually this — serene forest with over 50 miles of trails, free and available for anyone to enjoy.
That’s the other part of Labossiere’s job — managing those trails, and enticing more people to visit by making them easier to reach.
He and his crew have spent time managing an assortment of trails. Some are easy mile-long walks perfect for beginner hikers or people looking to become familiar with the area. Others are more challenging, like a 20-mile trail that’s a smorgasbord of different areas.
“The wealth that we have in this natural treasure is so beyond what we can deal with,” Labossiere says.
The Bioreserve is a landscape as varied and gorgeous as Blue Hills Reservation in Milton or Myles Standish State Forest in Carver — and larger than either of them. He sees no reason why the Bioreserve can’t be as popular and beloved an outdoors destination as those places. Groups like the Trustees of Reservations and Green Futures have led walking tours of trails for years. The Appalachian Mountain Club has started leading regular easy hikes here, with people coming from the Boston area to tread the Bioreserve’s paths — a path that leads to greater success in the city’s hospitality industry, Labossiere says.
But he’d be happiest seeing local people out here.
“We really want to see our residents get the maximum enjoyment out of this. There’s a practical reason. The more ownership they feel and the more utility they get out of it, you’re going to naturally want to take care of it,” Labossiere says. “Even if you’re not actively taking care of it, if you’re not contributing to the bad stuff, I’ll take that on any given…
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