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ANOTHER long journey begins with a single misstep

After tramping 18 miles through dense forests, alongside fast-flowing streams and over rocky ridges on eastern Connecticut’s Nipmuck Trail, our four-member group at last trudged toward what we believed was a parking lot where we had dropped off a car nearly nine hours earlier.

One problem: No car.

Maggie Jones, Phil Plouffe, Gary Burfoot and I stared at each other.

“Uh-oh,” I said, though I may have added a few other words.

It dawned on us that miles earlier, we had blithely strolled past a critical junction and strayed onto the footpath’s West Branch, instead of following the East Branch, where our ride home was parked at the trailhead.

We huddled around a map that I pulled from my backpack, and absorbed the bad news: We could backtrack to the cutoff and this time make the correct turn, or walk on paved roads to the East Branch. Either way would add more than 10 miles to an already long excursion.

“Let’s call an Uber,” Gary suggested, extracting his cellphone. I’m pretty sure Lewis and Clark never had that option.

A moment later, he groaned: “No service.”

Not far away, a woman was walking her dog. Maggie darted toward her, exclaimed, “We’re lost!” and described our dilemma.

“You poor dears!” the woman replied, “I’ll go get my car and give you a ride.”

Echoes of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” echoed in my brain — we were saved again.

Readers may recall that a few months ago, during a 15-mile leg of a multi-staged traverse of Rhode Island’s 90-mile North South Trail, our hiking group was similarly bailed out by a woman named Barbara, who drove me back to my car after we discovered that Maggie’s keys were locked inside it.

This more recent misstep took place a few weeks ago, on the first day of a multi-staged hike of the Nipmuck Trail, which extends 40 miles from Mansfield north to the Massachusetts border. I guess we were chatting about this and that, listening to bird calls and looking at trees instead of watching for a split in the trail.

If Karen Molloy hadn’t come along to give us a ride from Puddin’ Lane in Mansfield, to Mansfield Hollow State Park in North Windham, we might still be out there, like lost sheep. Thanks, Karen!

Anyway, it had been a glorious but demanding hike, starting from Route 74 in Ashford, which the Nipmuck crosses.

As Maggie noted, “We were immediately engulfed in lush greenery of a rich woodland at the peak of summer productivity. A scarlet tanager greeted us with its loud song (one of more than 10 individual tanagers we would encounter at intervals along the trail), along with Acadian flycatcher, and other less common interior forest birds. A broad-winged hawk, the smallest of our soaring hawks in Connecticut, called high in the treetops.”

Maggie, director emeritus of the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center in Mystic, has been a regular member of our hiking group for more than a year. For the first leg of the Nipmuck Trail, we were joined by our longtime pals, Phil and Gary.

One particularly enchanting section followed the Fenton River for more than a mile, where we were hypnotized by the rush of tumbling water.

Ascending Wolf Rock, a massive outcropping that overlooks Mansfield Hollow Lake, also was a highlight, but the most delightful surprise came when the trail emerged from the woods and crossed Route 195 in Mansfield.

There, directly in front of the Mansfield Historical Society, a giant red mulberry tree, loaded with ripe berries, beckoned. The four of us feasted on these juicy morsels for about 20 minutes before we reluctantly left this bountiful harvest to hungry flocks of Baltimore orioles that were waiting in the wings.

Various scheduling conflicts kept us from returning to the Nipmuck excursion until last week, when Owen Ehrlich — like Maggie, a fellow birder — joined us for a hilly trail loop through the exquisitely serene Yale-Myers Forest in Eastford.

A great blue heron took off from a stream, only yards away, as we entered the trail near an abandoned mill off the unmarked, gravel Barlow Hill Road.

The trail rose steeply for more than 100 yards, and at the crest, Owen and Maggie halted abruptly and grabbed their binoculars. Not far away, a hermit thrush issued its chromatic, flute-like song, which many ornithologists consider to be the loveliest of bird calls.

Nineteenth-century naturalist Montague Chamberlain once described this song as a “vesper hymn that flows so gently out upon the hushed air of the gathering twilight.”

It wasn’t twilight, but a buggy, blazing hot and humid mid-morning, when we were serenaded by the first of several hermit thrushes — ample reward for a short but challenging hike.

We are now more than halfway through Nipmuck and hope to finish the trail soon — assuming we don’t lock our keys in our cars again or take any more wrong turns. We may also go back and knock off six miles or so of the East Branch that we inadvertently bypassed, even though hiking the West Branch would qualify us as having completed the path.

Hey, it’s all part of the adventure, right?

 

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