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Keep hiking and hiking and hiking on the Goodwin Trail

The forest in spring, with all that screeching, squawking, cawing, chattering, howling and rat-tat-tatting, can be about as serene as a construction zone — but in a good way.

Mating season barely had begun when our hiking group rambled along the Richard H. Goodwin Trail in early March, so the cacophony was slightly subdued — a chorus of spring peeper frogs chirped desultorily and a red-bellied woodpecker drummed in the distance.

“Woodpeckers drum to attract mates and define breeding territories. This is different from the tapping noises they make when excavating insect larvae,” explained Maggie Jones, director emeritus of the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center in Mystic.

As the weeks progressed, this frenzy reached a heated pitch reminiscent of Studio 54 in the ’70s. Later in spring, and into summer and fall, when feathered and furry critters settle into domesticity, the woodland vibe will transform from “Saturday Night Fever” to “Family Ties.” 

The Goodwin Trail, which stretches nearly 14 miles between East Lyme’s Darrow Pond and Route 82 in East Haddam, rewards hikers in any season. It passes through dense woodlands and laurel tunnels, alongside sparkling Eightmile River, over rocky ridges and into steep ravines, almost entirely avoiding asphalt.

The footpath, which opened in 2016, is a fitting tribute to Goodwin, a pioneering naturalist of national renown who had been chairman of the botany department at Connecticut College, Maggie’s alma mater. Before his death in 2007 at age 96, he also helped establish the Connecticut chapter of The Nature Conservancy and later became the organization’s president. 

Last November, our crew visited Goodwin’s former homestead in East Haddam, now permanently protected as part of the 1,122-acre Burnham Brook Preserve.

The Goodwin Trail embodies one of Goodwin’s best attributes: an ability to bring together public and private environmental advocacy groups for a common cause. The path is a collaboration among the Eightmile River Wild & Scenic Coordinating Committee; the towns of East Haddam, East Lyme, Lyme and Salem; Yale University; and the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

Our group — which has been observing Covid protocols while hiking regularly at parks and preserves for more than a year — already had tramped over much of the Goodwin Trail’s eastern section, so we began our recent hike farther west, where it crosses Gungy Road in Lyme just south of the Salem border.

The path soon crossed a side trail marked with a simple, tantalizing sign: “Ancient oak.”

We gasped when the enormous tree — so huge that five of us could barely encircle it with outstretched arms — came into view.

“It must be 300 years old,” Maggie estimated.

In addition to hearing the mating-driven bird drumming, we saw plenty of evidence of rapid-fire, food-driven pecking: trees pockmarked with low, oblong excavations and piles of fresh wood chips created by pileated woodpeckers.

“Along with owls and hawks, woodpeckers are one of the earliest breeding birds in Connecticut forests, since they can access insect food inside tree bark with their chisel-like bills,” Maggie noted.

We also strolled past a beaver dam along a section of the Eightmile River. Beavers often get a bad rap, undeservedly, she added. 

“These natural engineers have an important role in our landscape, creating habitat for other species by slowing water flow,” Maggie said.

The Eightmile, a magnificent waterway, recently earned federal designation as a Wild & Scenic River.

Our group initially intended to hike about 3 miles out and 3 miles back, but the lure of the Goodwin Trail took us all the way to the end, 5 miles. That made for a 10-mile hike, counting the round trip back to our cars on Gungy Road.

It was worth it, we all agreed.

To hike the entire trail from east to west, start at Darrow Pond off Mostowy Road in East Lyme and finish at the Chapal Farm Preserve off Route 82 in East Haddam. There are parking areas at both ends, as well as at several intersections along the way.

A map of the trail can be accessed here: www.eightmileriver.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/TrailPlan_20170421_D.pdf

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