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    Wednesday, December 06, 2023

    Connected trails: Avoiding pavement on a hike through Groton

    Fort Hill Brook tumbles over a waterfall at the Sheep Farm preserve in Groton. (Steve Fagin)

    Anyone crisscrossing Groton by car might think that pavement dominates a town containing so many housing subdivisions, apartment complexes, shopping centers, factories and office buildings, not to mention an interstate highway, airport and submarine base. 

    Those on foot, however, can hike for miles on connected trails, as our small group confirmed last week.

    Maggie Jones, director emeritus of the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center in Mystic, who led our five-mile outing, said extended paths don’t just reward hikers.

    “Linking open space and natural habitats together to create contiguous greenways benefits birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians,” she noted.

    Maggie, who lives in Groton, also sought to dispel any perception that the town is overrun by development.

    “From tidal marshes, beaches and coastal shrublands to upland forests, meadows, ponds and freshwater wetlands, Groton has much to be proud of in terms of its successful conservation efforts,” she said. “Wherever we preserve undeveloped open space, we also protect our cultural heritage, which is all too easily bulldozed and paved over.”

    We set off on a brisk December morning from Haley Farm State Park, a popular destination for hikers, runners, dogwalkers, birdwatchers and bicyclists.

    During eight months of the pandemic’s social-distancing protocols, we’ve mainly explored off-the-beaten-path destinations, so rather than tramping over heavily used trails that lead west toward Bluff Point, south toward Palmer Cove or north toward Fitch High School, we strolled east along the less-traveled Groton Cross-Town Trail.

    In half a mile, we passed Gibson Pond, scurried across Groton Long Point Road, and entered the Mortimer Wright Preserve.

    Purchased by the Town of Groton in 1989, this hilly, 77-acre parcel is named for a state representative who had been a passionate land conservationist. While a young reporter covering Groton years ago, I remember Wright as a courtly gentleman who was among the leaders fighting to preserve Haley Farm and Bluff Point; it pleased me last week to amble through a preserve that bears his name.

    The Cross-Town Trail leads directly from the Wright Preserve to the Merritt Family Forest, which reminded me of another connection.

    I knew the late Roscoe Merritt, a salt-of-the-earth farmer whose family for generations raised cows, as well as grew corn, potatoes, pumpkins and other crops atop Fort Hill. In addition to farming, Merritt worked as a custodian at Fitch, where Boston Marathon champ Johnny Kelley taught English and coached the cross-country team.

    I often joined training runs with Kelley back then, and Merritt would shout, “Go get 'em, Johnny!”

    The late Roscoe Merritt’s son, also named Roscoe, ran on the team that Kelley coached. He told me over the phone last week that while Merritts no longer farm the property, it’s gratifying that the property remains unspoiled and open to the public for hiking.

    The Groton Open Space Association (GOSA) acquired the 75-acre Merritt property in 2008. The land had been part of the Fanning/ Eccleston Farm founded in 1705; before then, it was the site of a Pequot Native American fort.

    In fact, more than 450 years ago, Fort Hill and all the land around it, as far as the eye could see, from Narragansett Bay to the Hudson River, including Long Island, was part of the extensive domain of the Pequots. Their grand sachem, Sassacus, was born in what is now Groton in 1560.

    “A walk through Connecticut woodlands in autumn, after the leaves have fallen, reveals a bare bones landscape of rock outcrops and boulder fields, wetlands, waterfalls and distant views. Walking along a meandering single-track trail, it is easy to imagine that little has changed through the centuries,” Maggie said.

    After emerging from the Merritt Family Forest, we crossed Route 1 and walked a short distance on Flanders Road to the entrance of our next preserve, Sheep Farm South.

    As the name suggests, sheep once grazed on pastures now taken over by oaks, beeches, birches and other hardwoods.

    Sheep Farm South also features rocky outcroppings, glacial boulders, extensive wetlands and vernal pools. GOSA President Joan Smith said the organization has been awarded a $600,000 state grant to apply toward the $1,000,000 purchase price of the 104-acre property, and is seeking donations to pay a balance of about $100,000.

    In the meantime, the property’s trails are open to the public, and our group continued hiking to the next preserve, known simply as the Sheep Farm.

    GOSA acquired this 63-acre parcel, once part of Sheep Farm South, in 2010. It had been in continuous use as a farm since the 18th century and well into the 1990s. Vestiges of a grist mill and dam remain.

    The most picturesque feature is a natural waterfall on Fort Hill Brook, which tumbles through a gorge en route to Mumford Cove. Hikers can visit this section more directly over well-marked trails from the Sheep Farm’s main entrance off Hazelnut Hill Road.

    We encountered about a half-dozen other hikers here, taking advantage of what turned out to be a bright, sunny day.

    All too soon, it was time for us to retrace our steps.

    Visit gosaonline.org to learn more about Groton’s trails and how to support GOSA — one of many land conservation organizations throughout the region whose volunteers donate money, and devote countless hours, clearing and maintaining trails for public enjoyment.


    Mountain laurel surrounds Fort Hill Brook at the Sheep Farm preserve in Groton. (Betsy Graham)
    The Sheep Farm preserve in Groton offers a quiet place to rest. (Betsy Graham)

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