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In Old Lyme, why stop hiking after just one preserve?

What to do after you've hiked all the trails in one nature preserve and wanted to continue stretching your legs?

If you finished strolling the wonderful paths in Old Lyme's new McCulloch Family Open Space that traverse dense forests and wildflower meadows, you simply could step a few yards across Whippoorwill Road and enter an equally serene preserve, the Deborah and Edward Ames Open Space.

And then, if you still were feeling energetic, you could hook up with the Old Lyme Land Trust's contiguous Lay Preserve for even more woodland wandering.

This connectivity benefits not just hikers but also many birds and forest animals that require expansive habitat, explained Maggie Jones, director emeritus of the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center in Mystic, who joined our small group's ramble over sections of all three properties the other day. Miles and miles of marked trails crisscross the preserves' 700-plus cumulative acres.

Establishing green corridors has long been a goal of conservationists. Thanks to coordinated efforts by local land trusts and environmental authorities, large swaths of undeveloped land now spread throughout our region and the rest of Connecticut.

Before setting out on the Tree in the Gap Trail at the north end of the McCulloch preserve, we arranged to meet with two members of the McCulloch family, who shared memories of life on the one-time farm and campground.

"As a kid I spent summers haying the fields, driving horse teams and tending the sheep and cows," said David McCulloch, now 92. His parents, Warren and Rook McCulloch, moved to Old Lyme in 1927, buying about 450 forested acres they converted to a farm for raising crops as well as for breeding Morgan horses. In summer they also ran a camp for underprivileged youngsters.

David McCulloch and his niece, Anna Holland, who now lives in the family homestead just outside the preserve, explained that the intent always had been to maintain the property in its natural state.

David and his siblings, Jean Vasiloff and Taffy Holland, had donated a conservation easement to The Nature Conservancy years ago to "protect and preserve" the land in perpetuity.

Then last year they sold 312 acres to the town, creating the McCulloch Family Open Space preserve, which officially opened to the public in June after volunteers spent months clearing trails.

"It's a great place," said Michael Roche, who happened to be riding a mountain bike from his nearby home. He turned out to be the only person our group of five encountered during more than four hours of hiking. Over the past few months we've been able to maintain coronavirus social distancing by tramping through less-traveled nature preserves instead of bumping up against crowds that have jammed more popular parks and beaches.

Shortly before stopping to chat with Roche we veered onto a short loop leading to two appealing attractions: Rook's Meadow and Jimmy's Pond. These are named in honor of David McCulloch's mother, and Jim Mildrum, a lifelong resident who created the pond and now is one of the preserve's stewards.

The meadow was festooned with daisies and hawkweed — so named in the mistaken belief it gave hawks superior eyesight, Maggie explained. White lilies bloomed in the pond, while umbilical lichen, more commonly called rock tripe, grew over various boulders left behind by the receding glacier thousands of years ago.

"That's a good sign. Rock tripe only grows in very clean air," Maggie said.

Although rock tripe is edible, like the chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms we feasted on during a hike at Colchester's Day Pond State Park a few weeks earlier, they are far less savory. Mycologists refer to it as "famine food."

"I think I'll skip tasting it," I said.

We also found a varnish shelf mushroom growing at the base of a hemlock tree, which, true to its name, appeared to be painted with a fresh coat of varnish. Though inedible, the varnish shelf has been studied for possible medicinal use in the treatment of wounds and diabetes.

As always, Maggie kept up a running commentary of various flora and fauna as we sauntered along: lowbush blueberries; highbush blueberries, black huckleberries, partridge berries, shinleaf wildflowers and Indian pipe, a parasite that is one of the few plants that lack chlorophyll. A white stalk suggests its other name, ghost plant.

We also spotted great blue herons, a rose-breasted grosbeak, winter wren and a barred owl, whose distinctive "Who-cooks-for-you ... who cooks for you-alllll" call echoed through the woods.

Maggie responded with her own imitative call, and the real-life owl quickly replied. Soon they were having a conversation.

Suddenly, a great shadow swept overhead.

"There he is!" we exclaimed.

The owl landed on a nearby oak branch and peered at us with coal-black eyes for a moment before silently springing heavenward and disappearing amid the foliage.

A few minutes later we heard a distant, final "Who-cooks-for-you ... who cooks for you-alllll!"

There are three parking areas with trailheads leading into the McCulloch Family Open Space: one near the north end of Whippoorwill Road; one near the south end of Whippoorwill Road, which also can be used for hikers entering the Deborah and Edward Ames Open Space across the street; and one at the west end of Flat Rock Hill Road. Parking for the Lay Preserve is at the end of Lords Meadow Lane.

For maps and more information about each preserve, visit oldlymelandtrust.org

If you have a favorite hike or paddling destination, leave an online comment on this column or send an email to s.fagin@theday.com. Many thanks to Gregory Futoma and Amanda Blair of Old Lyme's Open Space Committee for this week's suggestion.

As always, stay safe, stay active, and remember to hike/paddle responsibly.

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