Hiking during a pandemic: Single file, no selfies or shared gorp

As our small group stepped well off a narrow, winding trail earlier this week at Hartman Park in Lyme to allow an approaching couple to pass, the man nodded in appreciation.

“Greetings, fellow quarantine escapees,” he declared.

After rejoining the path, we resumed our social-distancing hiking formation: single file, spaced at least six feet apart.

Hup-two-three-four… 

“If anybody gets too close, I’ll jab him with my trekking pole,” I warned, waving the telescoping implement around like a sword.

Welcome to the new protocols for perambulating in the coronavirus era: No touching, no sharing gorp, no helping hands, no group selfies.

While it may be true that many officials have recommended the public hunker down for a couple weeks to slow the spread of COVID-19, there’s been a mixed message regarding outdoor activities. People initially were encouraged to venture out for fresh air and healthy exercise, but after throngs of self-centered, clueless college kids whooped it up on Florida beaches during spring break, and the number of new coronavirus cases continued to spike, authorities had a change of heart.

We now are governed by a confusing, conflicting set of rules, further muddled by contradictions between a president eager to ease restrictions in order to halt an economic freefall, and his medical advisers warning of catastrophic casualties unless everybody self-isolates.

Here in Connecticut, Gov. Ned Lamont ordered all non-essential businesses to shut down, starting this past Monday through April 22.

He then authorized several, seemingly reasonable exemptions for those considered too mission-critical to close, including grocery stores, pharmacies, defense manufacturers and gas stations. But the initial list of those allowed to keep working also includes dog groomers, pool service employees, bicycle repair workers, liquor store owners and gun dealers. 

Huh?

Anyway, I talked it over with my hiking companions — who included a retired emergency room physician, a nurse-turned veterinarian and a retired pharmaceutical researcher/veterinarian — and we agreed it was legally, socially and morally acceptable to hike together in very small groups of six or fewer under certain conditions:

— We would pick a locale off the beaten path to avoid big crowds, such as those that have been swarming to such popular destinations as Bluff Point and Haley Farm state parks in Groton, and Harkness State Park in Waterford.

— We would drive separately — environmentally wasteful but medically advisable.

— We would maintain a safe distance from one another at all times.

— We would be especially careful not to tumble off a cliff or otherwise incur significant injury, because the worst thing now would be to wind up in the emergency room. 

Maggie Jones, executive director emeritus of the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center in Mystic, who joined us, suggested Hartman Park, and it proved to be the perfect refuge.

The 302-acre parcel on the east side of Gungy Road in the northeast corner of Lyme, donated to the town by John and Kelly Bill Hartman in 1988, is a wonderland of dense forests, steep ledges, waterfalls, streams, beaver ponds, glacial boulders, colonial-era farm vestiges and stone enclosures dating back to the 1600s.

With subsequent acquisitions by the Lyme Land Conservation Trust of the contiguous Walbridge Woodlands and Philip E. Young preserves, the protected property now comprises 422 acres that includes some 12 miles of hiking, biking and equestrian trails.

The park also connects to trails in Nehantic State Forest, which spreads out over 5,062 acres in Lyme, East Lyme and Salem, making it an ideal corridor for short rambles or extended sojourns. It is part of some 3,000 acres in Lyme, roughly half the entire town, permanently preserved and open to the public. 

Our group opted for a modest hike of about five miles that took us up and over ridges with grand views of the undulating terrain, which Maggie described as “rich and rugged.” Now in early spring, the forest has yet to fully come alive, and without leaves on the trees, we could take in broad expanses of terrestrial contours. 

Maggie kept up a running commentary of the various flora and fauna: striped winterberry, partridge berry, sweet fern, sweet pepper bush, umbilicaria lichen, hairy woodpeckers, eastern phoebes, painted turtles, peeper frogs …

During this outing of more than three hours, we encountered fewer than a dozen fellow hikers. 

I eventually hope to revisit Hartman Park to tramp over the remaining trails, but in the meantime, until someone orders me otherwise, I plan to spend the upcoming weeks cautiously exploring other lesser-known nature areas in the region, as well kayaking in ponds, lakes and rivers. I will continue to adhere to social-distancing protocols. 

Let me know if you have any suggestions for worthy destinations, either by adding an online comment to this column or by emailing me at s.fagin@theday.com.

Stay safe, everybody, and hike smart so authorities don’t decide to shut down parks and preserves during this crisis.

 

 

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