AYER/SHIRLEY – Memorial Day weekend, New England’s traditional summer season kick-off, is also the seasonal opener for area pools and beaches, most of which were closed last year due to the pandemic, including Benjamin Hill Pool in Shirley and Sandy Pond Beach in Ayer.
They both opened this year, but the debut weekend was far from picture-perfect.
Despite the weather — chilly, with soaking rain – two intrepid swimmers jumped right in when Benjamin Hill Pool opened for summer 2021, Benjamin Farrar and his mom, Rebecca Boucher.
Along with pictures of the plunge, posted on Facebook, Boucher noted that their first-day dive wasn’t just a fun thing to do, it was also a thumbs up to Ben’s dad, Benjamin Hill Park Committee Chairman Donald “Butch” Farrar for all his hard work to ensure the pool would open this year.
Besides filling the 136,000-gallon, Gunite pool and chlorinating all that water to spec, prep work behind the scenes before opening day includes inspecting pipes, fittings and fixtures; repairs as needed and re-painting the interior basin, including kid-friendly floor decor, featuring a familiar, red-haired mermaid and other whimsical aquatic creatures.
Farrar told The Nashoba Valley Voice he was cautiously optimistic about the upcoming season. The decision to reopen wasn’t made in a vacuum, he explained. The committee did its homework, from the latest state guidelines to checking with other communities that have public swimming facilities. “We looked at Groton and others… most are fully open now,” he said.
After a season’s down-time, he said restart challenges included the hiring cycle could have been thrown off when the pool didn’t open last year. But he seemed confident all jobs – lifeguards, swim instructors and other staff — would be filled when pool hours segue from weekends only to full time, after school gets out in mid-June.
The pool is now open on Saturday and Sunday, 1-6:45 pm. Beginning June 17, it will be open seven days a week, 1-6:45 pm. Hours, membership and user fees and swim instruction registration information may be found on the Benjamin Hill Park web site, or call 978-425-9536.
Benjamin Hill Pool is a self-sustaining entity that relies on fees, donations and other non-taxpayer revenue for daily operations. The town acquired the property – pool and all — when a small ski resort – eight slopes, a lodge, rope tows and a T-bar — that formerly operated there closed.
The Benjamin Hill Park recreation area, established in 2000 with a committee to oversee it, includes a picnic area, walking paths, tennis and basketball courts, a pavilion (built as a skating rink, now used as a sheltered outdoor event venue) and the Mystical Maze Playground, constructed and maintained with volunteer labor, grant funding and donated materials.
The pool house was built in 2007. It has a snack bar, restrooms, showers and an indoor seating area. Later improvements to the complex included extensive pool repairs and upgrades, a playground makeover, landscaping and re-paved playing courts.
For this year’s restart, everything will be basically the same, Farrar said.
The pool is open to all, with admission by membership or daily fees. Charges are based on a two-tiered scale in which residents pay a lower rate than non-residents.
The only significant change Farrar noted was swim lessons. Usually, the enrollment roster is packed, he said. But he’s aiming for more elbow room this year, so class sizes will be smaller. Otherwise, there are no pandemic-related restrictions. Pool patrons can decide whether to space poolside chairs further apart and if they will wear masks when out of the water or not, he said. Staff, however, will wear masks when they are not in the water. And for now, the kitchen and snack bar will be closed.
More signs on how well the new normal is shaping up: the Shirley Penguins Swim Team, on hiatus during the state of emergency, is back and will use the pool for practice. Summer in Shirley, a local day camp program, is also coming back, Farrar said.
Sandy Pond Beach in Ayer also closed last year and opened this year, on Memorial Day weekend.
Announced in a recent posting on the town website, the stated reasons for both the closure and conditions for reopening centered on public health and safety. Citing the slowed spread of COVID-19 since last season, and the uptick in vaccine availability, the content states, in part, that the beach is reopening “with some restrictions” — no swim lessons this year, for example, and limited capacity, based on state guidelines.
The beach, extensively renovated with a government grant several years ago, has been open to all in the past, with free admission for residents and fees charged for non-residents. But a new policy in place for the 2021 swim season made Sandy Pond Beach open to residents only. The policy will be reviewed later by the Parks Commission, according to the statement.
Proof of residency – such as a driver’s license or state ID card — is required for admission. Or, a residency card my be obtained from a gate attendant at the beach or by contacting Heather Hampson at Town Hall. The number is 978-772-8220, ext. 114.
Parking space is limited, with a designated lower lot for vehicles that have a beach parking sticker.
Currently open on weekends only, the beach will be open daily beginning June 15. Hours are 10 a.m.- 8 p.m., seven days a week, with swimming permitted only when lifeguards are on duty, noon to 7 p.m.
The beach will remain open until Labor Day.