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Extreme social distancing at Pachaug Forest

Tramping over an unnamed trail at Pachaug State Forest in Voluntown last week, our small band approached two creatures we’ve rarely encountered during other recent treks off the beaten path: fellow humans. 

“Hey! People ahead!” I exclaimed.

The couple politely stepped off the narrow track so the five of us could pass while maintaining a coronavirus-free gap, and once six feet in the clear, we stopped to chat.

“You’re the first people we’ve seen on this trail,” said Michael Christensen, who was hiking with his wife, Michele.

Like many people with time on their hands — before the pandemic, Michael worked as a dealer at Foxwoods Resort Casino, while Michele was a server at Go Fish Restaurant in Mystic — the Christensens have sought refuge in the great outdoors.

“We get out every day,” Michele explained. Michael noted that the trail we happened to share was close to their home, but they’ve also ventured to other nearby parks.

Like us, they’ve tried to avoid throngs — a challenge these days.

Just last weekend, authorities had to shut down several Connecticut state parks because of overcrowding. While it’s heartening that so many people find solace in nature, it’s disappointing that they often avoid exploring less-traveled but equally rewarding preserves and forests.

Pachaug, spread out over nearly 27,000 acres in six eastern Connecticut towns, is the perfect destination for social distancing, with miles of secluded trails that lead to pristine lakes, tumbling waterfalls, tall ledges, wooded ravines and other grand tableaus.

Parts of the forest are quite popular — on summer weekends, you may have plenty of company scrambling up 441-foot Mount Misery, pitching a tent in either of two campgrounds, swimming at Green Falls Pond, kayaking on Beachdale Pond, and mountain biking or horseback riding on unpaved roads; in winter, cross-country skiers and snowshoers share trails with snowmobilers and even dogsled racers. 

But a detailed map of the forest, which extends beyond Voluntown into North Stonington, Preston, Griswold, Plainfield and Sterling, reveals an extensive network of well-maintained but lightly used trails.

During last week’s outing, we followed such a path off Hodge Pond Road, just north of the North Stonington border between Route 201 and Route 49.

From a small parking lot, we hiked south alongside Myron Kinney Brook on a wonderfully soft trail covered with pine needles. Most trails in Connecticut are rocky, but this path was more like those in nearby Rhode Island — smooth and sandy, thanks to the receding glacier nearly 15,000 years ago.

Bracken fern, its tiny fronds still curled like tiny fists because of a chilly spring, lined the winding footpath, along with lady slippers, one of several species of wild orchid. The forest floor was coming to life with other flora.

“Look! Trailing arbutus!” exclaimed Maggie Jones, director emeritus of the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center in Mystic, who has accompanied us for the past month during our “coronavirus hikes.”

She pointed to a cluster of bellwort, its delicate yellow blossoms resplendent in filtered sunshine. Its scientific name, uvularia, comes from the fact that bellwort’s dangling flowers resemble the uvula, the fleshy protrusion that hangs in the back of your throat, Maggie explained. 

She added that bellwort, also known as marybells, is among a handful of plants that rely on ants to spread its seeds.

Betsy Graham chimed in with another factoid when we came upon a juneberry shrub, also known as shadbush or serviceberry.

Early settlers called the plant serviceberry because it blossoms in early spring, when the ground thawed sufficiently to conduct funeral services, she explained.

We also observed different varieties of lycopodiaceae, including the most familiar, princess pine, which resembles a grove of miniature pine trees.

I recalled that our seventh-grade science teacher used lycopodium powder to detonate small explosions in classroom experiments — it’s hard to imagine any educator today would dare set off such pyrotechnics.

“Very explosive,” Maggie agreed, adding that lycopodium powder was used in early flash photography.

Star flowers, reindeer moss, bear berries, Canadian mayflower, white pine, pitch pine, rattlesnake plantains … she ticked off the names of plants as we strolled.

We also came upon a rotten log covered with moss, which Maggie noted functions as a seed nursery for new trees to take root.

Every so often, the ground would rise up, forming a small hill.

These are “pillow and cradle mounds” created by the roots of large trees toppled by storms, she said.

Hiking with a naturalist doesn’t just expand one’s awareness of the natural world — it reinforces the notion that all living things are connected.

Pachaug itself is connected to the Last Green Valley, a National Heritage Corridor created in 1994 that covers some 700,000 acres, or 1,100 square miles, in 35 towns from Preston to East Brookfield, Mass.

More than three quarters of this tract is made up of forests and farms. It is green by day and inky when the sun goes down — the last swath of dark night sky between Boston and Washington, D.C.

With so much open space at our doorsteps to roam, there’s no excuse for packing large parks and public beaches, and so I plan to continue exploring less-visited areas.

If you have a favorite destination, leave an online comment on this column or email me at s.fagin@theday.com. Thanks, stay healthy, keep active and hike responsibly.

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