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After trudging more than 18 miles up and down steep ledges, across streams, amid thick forests and through brambles, we four hikers at last emerged from the blazed trail onto a dirt road and approached a large stone post.
"That's the border!" Jenna exclaimed, and we rushed forward to peer at this wonderful vision much as Lewis and Clark must have in 1805 upon first observing the mouth of Oregon's Columbia River.
Jenna is Jenna Cho, The Day's night news editor and a devoted contributor to the newspaper's interactive hiking guide. She and Peter Huoppi, The Day's videographer and likewise a dedicated hiker, planned this outing – a daylong trek the length of the Narragansett Trail, from Lantern Hill on the Ledyard/North Stonington border in southeastern Connecticut, to Ashville Pond in Hopkinton, R.I.
Bob Andrews, a volunteer trail manager with the Connecticut Forest & Park Association, the organization that oversees some 850 miles of trails in the state, was the third member of the expedition. I tagged along as writer of The Great Outdoors blog on The Day's website.
Our day began at 5:30 a.m., when we clicked on headlamps and scrambled up a rocky trail off Wintechog Hill Road to the nearly 500-foot summit of Lantern Hill. By the time we reached the top 15 minutes later a pink smudge appeared in the eastern sky and we gazed at a landscape of rolling hills penetrated by two communications towers.
Had we shifted our view to the west, we could have peered at Foxwoods Resort Casino, which from this elevation bears an uncanny resemblance to The Emerald City in the Land of Oz, but we elected to press onward and downward. We were, after all, on a mission, and at this early stage full of energy and eager determination.
Having accompanied Jenna and Peter on several outings, and bumping into them frequently through my connection to The Day, I spent much of the beginning of our hike getting to know Bob, whom I had first met at the trailhead.
It's always a good practice to learn something about someone you're going to spend time with on the trail, and I thought back to one such situation a few years ago when I accompanied a group of friends, acquaintances and strangers on a winter climb up Maine's Mount Katahdin.
During that excursion, we would be hiking for days together in treacherous conditions, and so I dutifully introduced myself to an unfamiliar member of the party, a friend of one of the casual acquaintances.
After we chatted for a while, he mentioned he had served in the Navy, and I asked if he were still on active duty.
"No, I was discharged," he replied.
Had I possessed a modicum of intelligence I would have left it at that, but curiosity got the better of me.
"What for?" I asked.
"I shot a guy."
Oh-kaaaay, I thought. I kind of edged away, smiling, and made a mental note not to inadvertently step on his pack while wearing my crampons. For the rest of the trip I slept with one eye open.
Happily, Bob apparently never shot anyone and turned out to be a wonderful hiking companion, a font of knowledge of flora, fauna, geology, natural history and folklore. As a trail volunteer he is responsible for blazing, clearing and otherwise ensuring safe passage for all of us who enjoy hiking in Connecticut, and for that we owe him and others in the CFPA a huge debt of gratitude.
We meandered along happily, stopping to snack on sandwiches at Wyassup Lake in North Stonington before proceeding up High Ledge and Bullet Ledge in Pachaug State Forest.
I had saved up a surprise for this landmark near mile 9.
"Hold it," I called, as they approached a barely hidden opening in the rock. I unstrapped my daypack, clicked on my headlamp and prepared to lower myself through a narrow crack.
This was Bear Cave, a roomy cavern that according to legend got its name when a Maj. Israel Hewitt shot a pesky bruin there in 1750. If I were in charge of naming landmarks I might have called it Stupid Hewitt Cave.
My old friend Johnny Kelley, the celebrated marathon runner who died last year, had showed me that cave years ago and I think about him whenever I revisit it.
Kell had also introduced me to other parts of the Narragansett Trail, where I often hike. It's wonderful to be able to duck into the woods so close to home, instead of driving for hours to New Hampshire, Vermont or Maine.
While Connecticut may lack towering peaks, it possesses a magnificently varied blend of rocky escarpments, lush meadows, stone walls, tumbling brooks, clear lakes and thick woodlands – ample rewards for even the most discriminating hiker.
We observed all of these features and more on the Narragansett Trail.
Among the highlights was in Voluntown, where the trail follows and crosses the Green Fall River through a pine and hemlock ravine en route to a dam and glorious pond. I find it particularly gratifying that though mills thrived there in the 19th century today only a few stone vestiges remain. Nature has prevailed and reclaimed the land.
After passing Green Fall Pond the Narragansett Trail merges with a path connected to Rhode Island's Lake Yawgoog, and yellow swatches of paint accompany Connecticut's blue blazes.
After our elation at the state border marker, we marched giddily along what we thought was a dirt road leading to Long and Ell ponds. None of us had been on this section.
After about 15 minutes Peter cried, "Hold up!" and pulled out a map and compass.
"We're heading too far west," he said.
Peter was right: We had strayed half a mile in the wrong direction.
"Well, we can add a mile to the day's total distance," I groaned, since we would have to retrace our errant steps before resuming our hike correctly.
By this time we had been out more than 11 hours, allowing for snack breaks and a couple of short side excursions to shelters built for overnight backpackers.
None of us had to utter the obvious: We were tired and eager to finish.
The four-plus miles from the border to Ashville Pond proved the most arduous, mostly because we were pretty knackered, but also because the trail near Long and Ell ponds rose and fell so precipitously.
I almost wished we had hiked in the opposite direction so we could have enjoyed this magnificent section early in the morning while fresh instead of late in the afternoon, when all we could think about was a hot shower and a cold beer.
Finally, shortly after 6 p.m. Ashville Pond appeared through the trees and we yipped for joy.
The hero of the day proved to be Jeff Johnson, a reporter who agreed to pick us up and in fact was waiting in his car in the parking lot. We greeted him like Dr. Livingstone must have welcomed Stanley.
"Well," I said, "In the immortal words of Edmund Hillary, when he finally scaled Everest, 'We knocked the bastard off.'"
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