Published December 21. 2013 4:00AM
Most denizens in our neck of the woods whined about last week's early-in-the-season storms that coated the ground with several inches of crusty snow topped by fluffy powder, but as soon as the flakes stopped flying my wife, Lisa, and I grabbed our cross-country skis and drove to a favorite destination, Voluntown's Pachaug State Forest.
"Who knows? This could be one of our only chances," I said.
Last winter may have been relentless (or epic, as far as schussers are concerned) but usually ski conditions don't last more than a few days before rain washes the snow away, or the snow melts into mud, or hikers, dogs and assorted other non-skiers trample tracked trails.
I've always been a seize-the-day kind of guy, and that dictum especially applies to cross-country skiing in Connecticut. Though the shoreline boasts some magnificent trails – Bluff Point and Haley Farm in Groton, and Rocky Neck in East Lyme – they tend to get beaten down compared to more reliably snowy paths just a few miles farther north, which is why we steered toward Mount Misery.
Encompassing more than 27,000 acres, Pachaug is Connecticut's largest state forest, and it contains miles and miles of trails and dirt roads that meander through groves of dense evergreens and lush rhododendrons, alongside secluded ponds and streams, and over rocky ledges, including the section's 441-foot namesake summit.
Incidentally, Mount Misery is a popular peak name – there's one in New York, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, New Jersey, Maryland, Nova Scotia, Gibraltar, Falkland Islands, Ireland and St. Kitts.
Voluntown's version offers fine views of woodlands and meadows but is not that easy to scale on skis, so Lisa and I slipped past the trailhead on our afternoon outing.
We began off Route 138 just west of the Voluntown Library on a gravel road called DEP Trail. In less than a quarter mile we veered left on a well-traveled path near a metal gate apparently intended to block off-road vehicles – though there were ATV tire tracks in the snow. Oh well, at least we only encountered the tracks.
After mile and a half we passed a path leading to the Mount Misery Summit, continued on a section of the Pachaug Trail and eventually joined the unpaved and unplowed Fire Tower Road.
In a short distance we turned right on Cutoff Road, where packed snow topped by fresh powder made for fast, slippery conditions nearly as good as any groomed trail at commercial cross-country ski areas in Vermont or New Hampshire.
Not only did we avoid having to pay for trail passes at Pachaug, which is free of charge, we didn't have to drive three or four hours each way.
Side trails from Cutoff Road pass through the majestic Rhododendron Sanctuary, but since the sun began to dip we bypassed this worthy detour, continued east past the Mount Misery Campground and an expansive field at the Herman Haupt Chapman Management Area, and turned right at the DEP Trail to ski another mile and a half back to the car.
"Well, at least we can say we got out on our skis this season," I said.
"It's not even winter yet," Lisa reminded me.
The solstice is today, Saturday, and sure enough, rising temperatures since our short outing have melted much of the snow and made conditions too rocky for skiing – which is why I plan instead to celebrate the first day of winter by kayaking in Fishers Island Sound with friends.
After all, carpe diem applies to just about every outdoor adventure.