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Bluff Point: A new look at an old favorite

After tramping for more than an hour over a semi-frozen salt marsh at Bluff Point in Groton, during a blinding snow squall reminiscent of a scene from “Dr. Zhivago,” our hiking group finally pushed through the reeds toward a well-traveled path.

A midwinter freeze had hardened much of the mud, and a wolf-moon low tide temporarily kept the Poquonnock River at bay — conditions that likely occur only a couple times a year. Otherwise, we would have had to stick to the familiar main trail.

“I’ve been hiking here (for decades) and never gone that way before,” said Maggie Jones, director emeritus of the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center in Mystic, who has accompanied us on dozens of socially-distanced outings since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic last year.

While slogging this route, we passed exposed roots of trees and shrubs along the undercut edge of the marsh, which gave us “an opportunity to see first-hand how the coast is changing due to rising sea level,” she added.

During glorious days last spring, summer and fall, our group resisted visiting the 806-acre coastal reserve to avoid crowds; we gambled that few other people would venture out in early morning on a midweek day in midwinter. It turned out to be a safe bet: During our 7½-mile outing, we encountered fewer than a half-dozen other hikers.

After hastily exiting the marsh in a race against the oncoming tide, we hiked on the main trail for only a few yards before veering off on a sandy spit, called a tombola, that leads west to Bushy Point. We then rambled along the beach on the south side facing Fishers Island Sound, rounded the western tip near Pine Island, and walked back along the north side facing Baker Cove, Groton-New London Airport and the mouth of the river.

Once again, we joined the main trail for only a few yards, and clambered to the southern tip’s promontory that overlooks Fishers Island and Long Island sounds. The water sparkled in sunlight filtered through high clouds; the angle of light in winter produces a crisp clarity not visible in any other season.

This breathtaking panorama, along with a network of public trails throughout the largest undeveloped coastal tract between New York and Cape Cod, have deservedly made Bluff Point one of the region’s most popular outdoor destinations.

From the overlook, we scrambled down the shore and proceeded east. We were on a roll — determined to stay off the well-trammeled path, even if it meant stumbling over uneven rocks.

The headland of Bluff Point is a long, streamlined, glacial drumlin that includes nearly 10 miles of uninterrupted rock between Groton and Stonington, Maggie explained.

“Beaches in southeastern Connecticut are small, few and far between. Standing on the rocky bluff looking south, it’s hard to imagine there's almost no rock along the Atlantic coast until Mexico,” she noted.

The region’s shore attracts winter migrants that mingle with resident birds; we saw hooded and red breasted mergansers, mallards, a loon, assorted gulls, and two immature bald eagles that swooped and circled.

At first, it appeared they were practicing aerial maneuvers, but we soon noticed that one of the birds held the carcass of a small animal, while the other tried to snatch it.

The first eagle eventually dropped its meal onto the ice, and the second dove down for a feast.

Throughout the walk, I reflected on how Bluff Point, a one-time farm, came close to becoming, at best, just another beach community or, at worst, an industrial or commercial hub.

John Winthrop, Connecticut’s first governor and the founder of New London, acquired the property as a land grant in 1648, and called it Great Farm. Subsequent owners also grew crops, as well as raised cattle, pigs and sheep.

In the 1920s and 1930s, campers leased a portion of the property and built more than 200 shacks, a shanty store and beach pavilion. They were about to be evicted when the Great Hurricane of 1938 wiped out what was known as Bluff Point Colony.

Through much of the 20th century, the north end of Bluff Point contained the Midway Railroad Yards, where 20 miles of tracks could accommodate 40 entire freight trains. The vestiges of a 75-foot cement turntable, where trains operating between New York and Boston changed directions, can still be seen.

During that period, there also was a small trailer park overlooking Mumford Cove.

While the state had thought about buying the peninsula for a park as early as 1914, numerous other proposals that could have forever tainted Bluff Point’s unspoiled allure also were considered over the years, including a steel mill, 1,100-unit/250-condominium housing development, shipping terminal and container port, 400-boat marina, and underground storage tanks for up to three million gallons of heating oil. In addition, the town of Groton once considered building a sewer pipe down the middle of Bluff Point that would discharge treated waste into the sound.

The state finally bought 246.6 acres at the western portion of Bluff Point in 1963, and hired an engineering firm that initially envisioned a Coney Island-style amusement park with carnival rides, hot dog stands and bathhouses, as well as a four-lane access road from I-95 that would lead to a 5,000-car parking lot paved over a salt pond. Pressured by environmental advocates who opposed that concept, the state legislature created an advisory council in 1972, on which I served, to come up with a new plan for the “highest and best use” of the property.

In 1974, the state purchased an additional 475 acres extending to the Mumford Cove shore, and a year later the legislature voted in favor of the advisory council’s recommendation to permanently protect Bluff Point as Connecticut’s first and only coastal reserve.

While it’s a wonderful place to visit any time of year, winter can afford serene solitude — especially if you stay off the beaten trail at low tide when the ground is frozen.

 

 

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