RUSSELL – This Sunday, Sept. 17, a jointly planned Western Mass Hilltown Hikers and Southern Hilltowns Adult Education (SHAEC) hike to the Keystone Arches has been moved to a meetup time of 3 p.m.in the parking area of the Chester Elementary School. Elizabeth S. Massa, founder of the Hilltown Hikers, said the parking area is a short walk to the Keystone Arch trail head. The 5-mile hike, which will be led by Massa and Michele Kenney, director of SHAEC, will take approximately two hours.
Massa said she tries to keep most of her hikes to five miles and two hours, to allow more people to participate. The first event by the group was actually a 15 mile mountain bike ride from Knightville Dam to the Chesterfield Gorge two years ago, when the Hilltown Hikers first formed.
“We all met for coffee, and made an official group, so no one would have to hike alone, and always have someone to hike with,” Massa said.
Now the group’s followers number 603, and come from as far away as upstate New York and Worcester. Once a month, Massa publicizes a group hike somewhere in the hilltowns. She also holds smaller, “flash” hikes which are organized the week before. All of them are posted on social media. She tries to do at least one hike a week, year-round. This winter, she plans to offer more cross-country ski and snow shoe hikes.
“So many people are involved in it and want to go, that’s why I’ve been doing more and more. They’re all free,” Massa said.
She posts hike information on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook at Western Mass Hilltown Hikers. She also posts information about other group hikes in the area.
Besides the Keystone Arches, destinations include Glendale Falls in Middlefield, Sanderson Brook Falls in Chester, Mount Shatterack and Noble View in Russell and Mount Tekoa in Montgomery. The group also often hikes the east and west branches of the Westfield River.
Massa said all ages participate, at varying hiking levels. Dogs are also welcome. “I give people the heads up to prepare for a muddy trail, and a little bit of rocks,” Massa said. Most people come prepared with hiking boots and walking sticks.
One time last spring, however, on a forest hike that was spotty with snow, two ladies arrived to the hike wearing high heels, with a son in shorts. Massa asked if they might have sneakers in their car, and had to send them away when they did not. However, she said the same group, who came from Belchertown, joined them on a later hike to Glendale Falls fully outfitted and “loved it.”
Massa said lately the Western Mass Hilltown Hikers has been drawing more people from farther away, which is fine by her. She is involved in a lot of local groups that promote the hilltowns, including as the Russell representative for the Jacob’s Ladder Scenic Byway and the Highlands Footpath, and a member of the Jacob’s Ladder Business Association (JLBA). She said she brings back the hikers’ feedback to the groups at meetings.
“I am very grateful to Liz for her dedication to the Hilltown community, and her willingness to give her time to encourage people to go out and explore our beautiful area,” said Michele Kenney, president of JLBA, director of SHAEC, and a frequent member of the group hikes.
“We’re trying to promote travel and tourism, and to enjoy and preserve what we have in the hilltowns,” said Massa. She said the hikes are bringing people from 45 miles away, who are “absolutely amazed” by the area. “They’d all stay overnight if there were more places to stay,” she added.
Massa said the Highlands Footpath, a recently incorporated group led by Andrew Myers of Chester, has a goal of 100% trail linkage all through the hilltowns in about five years. She said the goal is eventually to link up to Franklin County trails and to the Columbia Greenway Rail Trail in Westfield. The Pioneer Valley Planning Commission recently did a 350 page study on the Highlands Footpaths, which showed 85% private land owner cooperation, Massa said.
In her professional life, Massa is the owner of A1 Sewer and Drain out of East Longmeadow and Russell. A licensed plumber for the past eight years, Massa said opening her own shop four years ago allows her to work full time four days a week, and volunteer the rest.
“It’s that point in my life. I’m just able to enjoy myself,” Massa said.