Gliding through a pine grove on cross-country skis, snow glistened in sunlight filtered by feathery boughs, icicles dangled from ledges, trees creaked, groaned and echoed in the hollows, crisp air stung the nostrils – we outdoor enthusiasts savor such bounties of winter, ample rewards for having to endure icy blasts to the face, slush, Stygian darkness and other insults to the senses for much of the season.
Three friends – Maggie Jones, Jennifer Herbst and Phil Plouffe, all of Mystic, as well as Jennifer's playful pooch, Smiley – joined me the other day on a short but sweet outing in Voluntown's Pachaug State Forest, a magnificent, 27,000-acre expanse of woodlands criss-crossed by miles and miles of trails and gravel roads that are ideal for hiking in spring, summer and fall, and skiing or snowshoeing in winter when conditions permit.
During last year's snow starvation I managed to get out on my skis locally only twice, which is why I was eager to hit the trail soon after last week's storm dumped up to a foot of powder through much of the region. When it comes to snow in our neck of the woods, the principle of carpe diem prevails; those who hesitate risk losing out on the chance to play for weeks, months, or perhaps an entire year.
We drove to a forest road called D.E.P. Trail off Route 138, just west of the tiny village, and parked our cars next to a steel gate blocking a well-traveled path.
"It's a little rocky," Phil observed. No matter – enough snow covered the ground to support skis, and so we scrambled past the gate and set out, with Smiley, unimpeded by cumbersome strips of fiberglass worn by his human companions, dashing to the lead.
Unfortunately, we were not the first to venture onto fresh snow, and the start of the path had been fairly well trampled by boots as well as rutted by ski and canine tracks. Oh well, you can't have everything. Those of us who prefer to stick closer to home and ski for free rather than drive for hours and pay to schuss on groomed, commercial trails must take what we can get.
Whenever the path diverged, though, we heeded Robert Frost's advice and chose the road not taken, a policy that for the most part served us well until, inevitably, the trail disappeared among a tangle of fallen trees.
"What should we do?" Maggie called, peering in my direction.
As unofficial expedition leader who has periodically tramped and skied the territory, it seemed logical that I would be the one consulted for route advice – except that my navigationally challenged sense of misdirection is compounded by a propensity for willy-nilly exploration. This can be, and has been, a dangerous combination.
"Uhh, it looks like the trail should keep going toward that valley," I said, waving a ski pole, "but I absolve myself of any responsibility."
"Does anybody have a smart phone with GPS?" Jennifer asked.
"I don't even have a dumb phone," I replied.
"I think we should keep going," Maggie decreed.
I'm pretty sure British explorer Robert Scott must have uttered those words more than a century ago during his ill-fated race to the South Pole, but we deferred to Maggie, who is executive director of the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center in Mystic and a devoted outdoorswoman.
"It looks just like the trail at Manituck," she explained, referring to a nature preserve in Stonington where a storm had knocked over a number of trees. "All the blowdowns are blocking the trail. We just have to get past this section"
And so we slowly picked our way over and around toppled trees, wondering how long we should continue before giving up and backtracking. To amuse us, Maggie related the story of a woman who had been out cross-country skiing a number of years ago, slipped on a log and impaled herself on a sharp branch.
"Was she killed?" Jennifer gulped.
"No, but she had horrible injuries, crippled the rest of her life …"
"I see a fence!" I cried.
Sure enough, a hundred yards ahead a metal gate extended between two trees. Beyond it: a snow-covered gravel road that eventually led to our cars. We would wind up covering six or seven miles, except for Smiley, who likely zig-zagged at least twice that distance.
As we merrily skied ahead, we credited Maggie's determination and sense of direction.
"That was fun. I'm glad we didn't turn around," she said.
"Me too," I said. "Every outing should have a little angst, a little uncertainty. Otherwise it wouldn't be an adventure."
Note: A few weeks ago, when I wrote about a new ordinance on Long Island banning clotheslines in front yards, an alert reader noted I inadvertently mixed up the towns of Glen Cove and Great Neck Village, N.Y. Since the reference was based on a kayak trip around Long Island I made years earlier, I attribute the error to water on the brain. Mea culpa.