Slip-sliding away on the Air Line Trail

Icicles that dangled from jagged walls of blasted rock glittered in bright sunshine earlier this week as four of us glided in cross-country skis over crusty snow.

“Hey, conditions aren’t too bad,” remarked Ian Frenkel. His giraffe-like legs make up the lion’s share of a nearly 7-foot frame, meaning one of his strides covers two or three of mine.

I often feel like a Chihuahua trying to keep up with a Great Dane whenever I run, schuss, kayak, swim, bike or even walk alongside Ian, but we usually manage to settle into a mutually comfortable pace. Joining us for a ski outing on the Air Line State Park Trail at the East Hampton/Colchester border were my wife, Lisa, and son, Tom.

Last weekend’s storm that started as flakes before turning to rain deposited only a couple inches of slush in southeastern Connecticut, so we decided to head north for more skiable snow.

I immediately thought of the Air Line, a former railroad bed converted to a picturesque recreation trail that traverses nearly 50 miles through eastern Connecticut’s dense forests, past tumbling waterfalls and overlooking broad vistas. Though I’d never skied on the path, I have run and biked on it, and frequently paddle on the nearby Salmon River.

Named for an imaginary straight line through the “air” between New York and Boston, the Air Line rail corridor was designed as a shorter alternative to the sinuous shoreline route. Construction began in the 1860s, a monumental project that over the next decade required workers to carve through rocky ledges and build enormous trestles spanning valleys and rivers.

The new service, inaugurated in stages through the 1870s, eventually allowed passengers to roll from New York to Boston in five hours instead of six via the old shoreline route. Then in 1891, the Pullman Company delivered luminescent, white luxury cars trimmed in gold, which attracted a wave of prominent riders, including President Benjamin Harrison.

These Pullmans were so popular the railroad painted all its cars white, giving way to the fabled Ghost Train that rolled during the line’s heyday.

Toward the end of the 19th century, though, the competing shoreline railroad added longer, faster cars that the Air Line’s spindly trestles couldn’t accommodate, and The Ghost Train shut down in 1902.

Ten years later, the Air Line buttressed its viaducts with gravel and crushed stone, allowing some passenger and freight service to continue, but catastrophic flooding from Hurricane Diane in 1955 destroyed a rail bridge in Putnam, leading to a spate of service interruptions. Construction of Interstate-95 in 1960 that paved the way for cars and trucks drove a final spike into the Air Line’s railroad operations.

In the 1970s, far-sighted recreation advocates, including such organizations as the Rails to Trails Conservancy, which has helped convert some 23,000 miles of abandoned railbeds to hiking and biking paths across the country, persuaded the state to obtain rights of way to the Air Line corridor.

Today, Air Line State Park is comprised of two branches: A 22-mile south section from East Hampton to Windham, and a 21-mile north section from Windham to Putnam that leads to a 6.6-mile extension to Thompson.

Long stretches have been graded and paved with gravel, cinder or stone dust, making for a flat, relatively smooth surface ideal for walking, running and mountain biking, but perhaps a bit rough for thin-wheeled road bicycles.

As for skiing, boot prints, fat-tire bike tracks and dog paw prints pockmarked much of the section we traversed in the vicinity of Bull Hill Road in East Hampton.

No matter, we carved our own tracks, and it was wonderful to be outside on such a cold yet glorious day, but it would have been nice — though unrealistic — if one narrow band only a couple feet wide had been designated for cross-country skiers.

Short of driving farther north and paying admission at a professionally groomed ski center, cross-country skiers must hurry out on public trails early, before the teeming hordes invade — especially during a winter that has been largely snow-free in southeastern Connecticut.

Trampled trails notwithstanding, I’m happy so many people, dogwalkers and hikers alike, make use of the Air Line and other recreation paths. It’s great to see manmade entities reclaimed and repurposed.

Who knows, maybe one day in a Jetsons-like future of drone transportation (heaven help us), we’ll be able to hike on the I-95 Trail.

For more information on the Air Line and other state trails, including maps and a list of access points and parking lots, visit the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s website, www.ctgov/deep.

Happy skiing, while the snow lasts.

 

 

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