North Quabbin Trails Association, Veterans Affairs creating link between hiking, vets’ experiences

  • North Quabbin Trails Association member Kevin Bernard plays “Amazing Grace” on his flute during the Feb. 6 walk at the Feldmans’ Cutthroat Brook trails in Athol with local veterans. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • The North Quabbin Trails Association published a new map of the Feldmans’ Cutthroat Brook trails in Athol, opening up a 2.8-mile Outer Limits section to now include over 8 miles and over 30 trails, which are all interconnected with three loop trails. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • North Quabbin Trails Association members were joined by military veterans on Feb. 6 at the Feldmans’ Cutthroat Brook trails in Athol for the first nature walk and hike as part of a developing partnership with Department of Veterans Affairs offices. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 2/17/2021 3:06:54 PM
Modified: 2/17/2021 4:01:38 PM

ATHOL — North Quabbin Trails Association members were recently joined by area military veterans for the first event in a new growing partnership with Department of Veterans Affairs offices.

Joined by four veterans at the Feldmans’ Cutthroat Brook trails off of Briggs Road in Athol for a winter morning hike on Feb. 6, North Quabbin Trails Association President Bobby Curley said he is excited about the potential of this partnership between the VA offices and his nonprofit, which keeps an office at the Orange Innovation Center.

Curley has been working alongside Kevin O’ Leary, a clinical psychologist from the Lowell Vet Center who has worked with the Department of Veterans Affairs for seven years. A former 10th Special Forces veteran, Curley said forging this partnership with area Veterans Affairs offices was important to him, noting that the experience of being connected to nature provides a sense of holistic healing for veterans, or others, who may be recovering from both physical injuries and mental or emotional “scars.”

“The vision is take a veteran out, no questions asked, and bring them out to these events and balance the body and mind,” Curley said.

O’Leary said veterans traveled over an hour for the first winter walk, and “they all greatly enjoyed the opportunity to safely be together and enjoy a wonderful winter day in the woods.” Additionally, several other veterans have told him they are interested in regularly participating in a hiking group and in learning how to help with the North Quabbin Trails Association’s stewardship activities.

“The Lowell Vet Center has seen the impact of the isolation and physical distancing in our veterans over the past year,” O’Leary said. “The Lowell Vet Center has been utilizing outdoor meetings, with appropriate screenings and precautions, to safely meet face-to-face with our clients and to give them an opportunity to reconnect with each other. The addition of physical exercise tailored to the individual’s activity level can be an effective way to break free of the winter blues. We are looking to continue planning activities to alleviate some of the isolation and inactivity veterans are experiencing.”

Curley said the first walk “was a resounding success” and a “premier event” as they look to establish a lasting relationship between the North Quabbin Trails Association and a federal VA program. The current plan, O’Leary said, is to develop more opportunities to hike, whether that is a relaxing nature walk or more strenuous mountain climb.

“We have veterans of all ability levels and interests, and the more we can help get into the outdoors the better,” O’Leary said.

They have already begun to plan for future events with participating veterans. Curley said there will be an “easier, naturalist walk” on March 13 at Winchendon Community Park. A more challenging 5- to 7-mile hike with multiple vista points and two waterfall views around Long Pond in Royalston will be held on April 3.

O’Leary said the history of combat veterans and hiking dates back to World War II. He referenced the book “Walking with Spring” (1984) in which veteran Earl Shaffer told a friend he was going to “walk off the war” to work out the sights, sounds and losses of World War II. In 1948, after four months of hiking, Shaffer became the first person to traverse the entire 2,190 miles of the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine.

“Following his example, we do believe that the experience of being in the woods, the connection between hiking and veterans’ experiences in the military, and the bond that comes from the ‘shared suffering’ of a hike can be strong therapeutic interventions,” O’Leary said. “The unique stressors we are facing now increases the need for alternative ways to provide meaningful connection.”

The Lowell Vet Center is one of 300 veterans’ centers across the country. O’Leary said veterans’ centers provide confidential counseling, outreach and referral services to eligible veterans, active duty service members and their families. Individual, group, couples/marriage and family counseling is provided at no cost to the individual and without time limitations. Centers are available to help address symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and military sexual trauma (MST), as well as everyday stressors and barriers to accomplishing an individual’s goals. Additionally, centers provide bereavement counseling to family members who lost a loved one while serving on active duty.

“Our hiking group trips are in the service of this mission,” O’Leary said. “The Lowell Vet Center partners with groups and organizations in the community to help further the goals and efforts to support veterans, service members and their families. We appreciate the willingness of NQTA to partner with us and help offer engaging ways to reduce isolation and create meaningful connections with other men and women who have shared experiences.”

To learn more about the North Quabbin Trails Association, visit Or, veterans interested in learning more about the programs for veterans can email Curley at

Zack DeLuca can be reached at or 413-930-4579.

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