A wolf den’s dubious distinction
Imagine that if someone today killed the only known lynx in Colorado, or the last Florida panther, and not only was the site of the shooting later listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but a town was then named after the hunter.
That’s exactly what happened centuries ago in northeastern Connecticut.
Back in 1742, after a wolf slaughtered 70 sheep and goats belonging to a Pomfret farmer named Israel Putnam, he rounded up a group of neighbors to slay the animal that had been menacing livestock for years.
In his 1788 book, “The Life and Heroic Exploits of Israel Putnam,” Gen. David Humphreys describes how the group used a pack of bloodhounds to track the “she-wolf” through newly-fallen snow all the way to the Connecticut River and back before it slipped into a cave-like den.
Putnam lit a birch-bark torch, entered the den, shot the wolf, and dragged it out by the ears.
Putnam became better known as a Revolutionary War general who fought with distinction at the Battle of Bunker Hill, and was honored posthumously in 1855 when parts of Killingly, Pomfret and Thompson were incorporated into a new town bearing his name.
Such a tribute to a hero may be commendable, but designating the den as a place of historic distinction is disturbing, at best, considering contemporary environmental sentiments.
“Today, we cannot imagine celebrating the intentional elimination of any species — amphibians, insects, birds, mammals or plants,” said Maggie Jones, director emeritus of the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center in Mystic, who accompanied our hiking group on a recent visit to the park and its (in)famous cave.
“We understand and appreciate ecological intricacies and relationships, including the role of wolves and other carnivores, in an entirely different context nearly three centuries later,” she added.
Whatever your attitude about hunters or war heroes, the Wolf Den and other geologic formations at 917-acre Mashamoquet Brook State Park offer ample rewards to hikers. There are 6.5 miles of trails through densely forested ravines, over ridges with commanding views, and alongside a pristine, fast-flowing stream.
The property, originally inhabited by the Mohegan tribe under its chief, Uncas, was part of a tract known as the Mashamoquet Purchase, dating back to 1708, when Pomfret was settled. Mashamoquet — then pronounced “mush-mugget” but now more commonly called “mash-muck-it” — is a Native American word for “important fishing place.”
The park’s origins can be traced to 1918, when Pomfret resident Sarah Fay donated nearly 12 acres along Mashamoquet Brook to the state. She and neighbor James Bowditch also donated four more acres in an area known as Sap Tree Run thanks to a handsome grove of sugar maples.
That same year, the state bought additional property, bringing the total to 71 acres. In 1924, the state purchased 363 more acres surrounding the Wolf Den from the Daughters of the American Revolution, which the organization had acquired in 1899. The park expanded to its present size with the purchase of the former Brayton Gristmill in 1930 and the 148-acre Hotchkins Wolf Den Farm in 1957.
Like many other state parks, Mashamoquet provides places to camp, picnic, fish and swim; we stuck to hiking on trails that meandered over bedrock created more than 350 million years ago, and alongside distinctive rock formations.
A trio of these natural features all lie in relatively close proximity: Table Rock, Indian Chair and Wolf Den.
Table Rock is a flat slab of granite that appears large enough to support a king-sized mattress, if one wanted to curl up there for nap. It also probably could double as a helicopter landing pad.
Indian Chair looks more like a La-Z-Boy, without the reclining mechanism. It is surprisingly comfortable, even without upholstery.
As for the Wolf Den, you have to get down on hands and knees to crawl inside the 15-foot, narrow fissure. The cave floor is covered with moldy leaves that don’t exactly invite lingering.
All three formations are worth viewing as part of an excursion through the glorious woods of New England, replete with hemlock, pine, oak and beech trees, as well as ample expanses of mountain laurel.
If you close your eyes, wind whipping through Mashamoquet’s ravines almost sounds like the ghostly howl of a wolf.
Directions: Take Route 395 north, Exit 41. At the end of the exit ramp, turn left onto Route 101 West, and continue until it ends at Route 44. Continue straight ahead on Route 44 West for about one mile. Mashamoquet Brook State Park is on your left.
The trail starts at the ranger station on Wolf Den Road. The trailhead is behind the parking lot to the left. There are maps posted at the trailhead and at each trail intersection.