The sights and sounds of spring on the Nehantic Trail
Somewhere between Breakneck Hill Road and Mount Misery, the 13-mile Nehantic Trail passes what remains of the Windy Acres farm, with its ramshackle barn blowing away, shingle by shingle, and an old abandoned house looking very much like its last occupant left in a hurry.
"It looks like something from 'The Walking Dead,'" said Jenna Cho, one of my five companions for this all-day hike on a recent morning, after peering in the open doorway of the house.
With birth years spanning 65 years from 1946 to 2011 - Great Pyrenees-Golden Lab mix Chloe was the youngest, and I came somewhere in the middle - this group, joined by a common purpose to trek the entire Nehantic Trail on this delightful, breezy day, wasn't about to be dissuaded by some unwelcoming place names and the ready-made horror movie set at Windy Acres, nor by the rattle of gunshots a little past the farm, which we surmised must be coming from a sportsmen's club. We had miles of trail ahead through pine and hardwood forests reawakening for the spring, past countless feet of stone walls, over paved and dirt roads and across rocky streams and muddy wetlands - not to mention a couple of unexpected encounters.
"I've done three trips here this spring," said Todd Douglass, one of two volunteer Nehantic Trail maintainers for the Connecticut Forest & Park Association, which established the network of blue-blazed trails around the state. "There's different parts of the trail that get a lot more use, the ones near the parking areas."
Accompanying him and the ever-cheerful Chloe from the CFPA was fellow volunteer Bob Andrews of Preston, who oversees the network of blue-blazed trails in the eastern part of the state. Three of us from The Day's newsroom - Jenna, the night city editor, Carlos Virgen, the digital news director, and yours truly - were their companions for the hike, grateful to have amiable, knowledgeable guides for the outing.
"You getting tired?" Todd jested, as he hoisted a discarded tire Bob found on the trail onto his shoulder.
Bob had rolled it several hundred yards down the trail when Todd took over, carrying it to a spot on Breakneck Hill Road where, Bob assured us, state environmental crews would find it and cart it away.
We had started out at 8:49 that morning from Hopeville Pond State Park in Griswold, at the northern end of the trail. Six and a half hours later we finished at the Green Falls Pond section of the Pachaug State Forest in Voluntown, passing through the Chapman-Mount Misery section of the Pachaug and adding a 1-mile side trip into the Rhododendron Sanctuary. Along the way we followed Route 49 past Nature's Campsite campground and the Best Little Hair House beauty salon, then crossed Route 138.
About 90 percent of the trail is within Pachaug State Forest, at 24,000 acres the state's largest, with the remaining sections on private land where owners have granted trail easements. Aside from a few short steep sections like the path to Mt. Misery - which, at 441 feet is really more of a hill - the terrain is fairly level, with long stretches carpeted with soft pine needles, making the hiking suitable for most anyone who's reasonably fit.
A recent graduate of Eastern Connecticut State University who lives in Glastonbury, Todd began volunteering with CFPA in college, and continued when he started working as a teacher at two of the state's men's prisons.
"After working in a concrete box all day, this gives me a good chance to get out," he said. As a trail maintainer, he paints the blue blazes that mark the trail, keeps it clear of fallen limbs and trims back branches, among other tasks.
"You're right Bob, the trail needs some work in the middle where we were ducking," he said at one point, referring to a stretch through overgrown laurel bushes.
Two hours into the hike, Bob led the group on a side trail to a lean-to shelter and campsite maintained by the CFPA. Boy Scouts and others use it by reservation. As the group stopped for rest and a snack, Bob thumbed through a log book in the shelter.
"We stayed for a shot of tequila. It was a nice spring day. The peepers were up," he said, reading the April 10 entry from the book.
Someone left two full cans of Busch Light inside the shelter.
"No couth, and no taste," he commented.
About a half hour later, we were atop Mt. Misery, taking in a view of forest disappearing off to the East while we devoured our sandwiches and Jenna treated everyone to dark chocolate peanut butter cups. Clearly this place does not live up to its name.
"This is a great place to watch the sunrise," Bob said.
Descending Mt. Misery, we found ourselves on one of the dirt roads in the Chapman section of the Pachaug, where we took advantage of the outhouses, then happened upon a small army of capable young equestrians taking turns leading their horses to a stream before clip-clopping back along a dirt road.
It was a pleasing sight soon to be countered by a not-so-pleasing one. A mile or so back into the forest, two dirt bikes roared toward us on the trail, not slowing down. As they sped past, Bob pointed his cell phone at them to get a photo of their license plates so he could report them - there is one designated trail in the Pachaug where dirt bikes can go, but they aren't allowed on the Nehantic - but to no avail. Both plates were too battered and muddy to be readable. Misuse of trails by ATVs and dirt bikes is a frequent problem, he said.
The last section of the trail took us past a picturesque overlook at Beachdale Pond, where Bob pointed out a kayak and canoe launch, then back into a canopy of towering white pines probably planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps crews that had an encampment in the Pachaug in the 1930s. The forest roads and remnants of fieldstone wells we found along the trail were additional evidence of their handiwork. Just before Green Falls Pond first came into view, we came to a rocky stream cutting between two outcropped ridges. Above a small waterfall in the stream, a wooden carved sign hung on a tree trunk that read, "In loving memory of Donna Jackson, 1965 to 2009."
Further ahead, two black vultures circled, the only wildlife we'd seen that day. But there had been signs of their presence - piles of deer droppings, clumps of black and gray fur that were the remains of small animals that probably became an owl's prey, and a handful of empty acorn shells atop a rock used as a dinner table for a chipmunk or squirrel.
At 3:15, we arrived at the sign marking the end of the trail at Green Falls Pond, feet sore but heads up, satisfied and happy. Two cars we'd left there at the start of the day awaited us.
"We did it," said Jenna. "Six and a half hours - not bad."
Too exhausted for much reflection, Todd summed up the mood.
"It was a good hike; a good way to start spring."
Go to www.theday.com/hiking for Nehantic Trail regulations, directions and more.
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