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Three towns, one great preserve

While tramping over hilly, rocky terrain in one of southeastern Connecticut’s newest nature preserves earlier this week, Carl Tjerandsen knelt to examine a decaying tree stump.

Most hikers casually step over or around moss-covered logs, but Carl is drawn to them as a bee to honeysuckle.

“Look at all the little rhizoids, trapping water. They’re (literally) at the bottom of the forest food chain,” he said.

Maggie Jones, executive director emeritus of the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center in Mystic, crouched alongside to get a better look at tiny shoots emerging from the stump’s verdant carpet.

“There’s a maple seedling, a birch, Canada mayflowers …” she said, explaining how moss serves as a seedbed for a variety of plants to kindle new growth.

All too often, people don’t fully appreciate nature’s small wonders, Carl said, adding, “I’m thinking of putting a sign up that reads, ‘Stop, look, listen.’”

Our group was hiking through the Tri-Town Forest Preserve, a sprawling, rugged sanctuary straddling North Stonington, Preston and Griswold. In 2018, the Avalonia Land Conservancy purchased 409 acres from a Tennessee developer who for years had sought unsuccessfully to build a large housing subdivision. Combined with a contiguous protected tract, the Tri-Town preserve now measures 527 acres.

Containing dense woodlands that teem with wildlife, streams, ponds, stonewalls and two 500-plus-foot overlooks, the property is one of the conservancy’s most popular and highly regarded natural areas.

A report by Robert Askins, professor emeritus at Connecticut College, notes the land “encompasses an exceptionally large area of contiguous, healthy mature forest,” adding that recent surveys “confirm that both the diversity and density of forest birds is truly exceptional; no other Avalonia preserve comes close.”

A separate study conducted by the Connecticut Botanical Society and Carya Ecological Services found that the preserve supports more than 300 plant species, including 11 considered rare.

Tri-Town also abuts more than 800 conservation easements held by The Nature Conservancy and is across the street from a 213-acre section of Pachaug State Forest. Land preservation advocates hope one day it will be part of a greenbelt extending from northern New London County to Long Island Sound.

I had hiked through Tri-Town on a bitter cold January day in 2018 just as Avalonia was completing its purchase. At the time, there were only a few rough trails, so we occasionally had to bushwhack through tangled brush, and at one point dragged fallen tree limbs across a mostly frozen stream to fashion a shaky, makeshift bridge.

Since then, Carl, a longtime Avalonia supporter, along with Sue Sutherland, a board director, as well as a team of volunteers, have spent countless hours laying out, clearing and helping maintain some nine miles of well-marked paths. A sturdy new bridge now crosses the stream we once tiptoed over; five benches provide resting spots atop challenging ridges.

“We’re about to climb Lambert Peak. Grab your oxygen bottles,” Carl joked not long after our group set out on a five-mile hike.

While some carried trekking poles, Carl gripped a wooden implement called a hula hoe, a wooden pole with a metal stirrup-like blade that he swung repeatedly as he walked, lopping off seedlings too close to the trail. That way, they won’t eventually grow into trees that block the path.

“Sorry about that,” he apologized to the small plants.

In the other hand, Carl clutched a leash attached to Molly, a 95-pound Malamute husky possessed with boundless energy.

If Carl stopped for more than five seconds to catch his breath, Molly barked impatiently.

“This is elder abuse,” Carl grumbled as he resumed forging uphill.

At last atop the 543-foot-tall summit, we paused to gaze at a broad expanse of rolling hills — but not for long.

“Arf! Arf!”

We were off again.

After descending, our group meandered through other scenic features: magnificent stands of beech trees and chestnut oaks; towering ledges; serpentine stonewalls built by early Native Americans as well as by colonists; more than 100 stone cairns; and a “lost pond” and earthen dam that once powered a shoddy mill. Shoddy, as its name suggests, was a cheap fabric made from discarded remnants. Sue said she is still searching for vestiges of the centuries-old mill.

Not far from one of the preserve’s entrances off Miller Road in North Stonington, we also passed a small grove of young pitch pine trees. Sue grew these from seeds retrieved from pinecones she gathered a few years ago at the Candlewood Hill Wildlife Management Area in Groton.

Our group encountered only a handful of other hikers while rambling for several hours, fulfilling a goal of enjoying fresh air and healthy exercise while maintaining social distancing mandated by the coronavirus pandemic.

During the past six months, we’ve avoided busy state parks in favor of less-traveled nature preserves held by Avalonia and nearly two dozen other private, nonprofit land-conservation organizations.

Founded in 1968 as the Mashantucket Land Trust — its name was changed in 1995 to Avalonia Land Conservancy to avoid confusion with the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe — the organization has grown into one of the region's leading land conservation groups. It owns or holds easements on about 100 properties in eight towns amounting to more than 4,300 acres.

For that achievement, and to the many volunteers who have toiled to create miles and miles of wonderful hiking trails, those of us who enjoy the outdoors say: Thank you!

For directions to Tri-Town and other Avalonia preserves, visit avalonia.org.

If you have a favorite place to hike or paddle, leave an online comment on this column or send an email to s.fagin@theday.com.

As always: Stay active, and stay safe.

 

A unique trail race event

The Avalonia Land Conservancy has scheduled a series of trail running and hiking races next month to raise money to help make the final $100,000 payment on a $877,000 loan used to purchase the Tri-Town Ridgeline Forest. 

The Avalonia Trail Trek, a weeklong competition, is scheduled from Saturday, Oct. 17, to Sunday, Oct. 25. Individuals and teams will compete in a variety of events on Avalonia’s preserve throughout the region, ranging from fastest time to longest distance covered to greatest overall elevation gained. Prizes will be awarded based on statistics measured by the online fitness tracking service Strava.

For more information, contact Terri Eickel, Avalonia’s director of development and programming, at terri@avalonialc.org.

 

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