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Hiking to Massachusetts on the Nipmuck Trail

A lush expanse of mountain laurel spread along the east bank of Breakneck Pond, forming a verdant tunnel that our hiking trio gamboled through one glorious afternoon this week.

“A perfect place to end our hike,” I called over to Maggie Jones and Bob Graham, as we approached the Massachusetts border.

We were about to reach the northern terminus of the Nipmuck Trail, a 40-mile footpath traversing one of the state’s most rugged, remote regions — the so-called “Quiet Corner” of northeastern Connecticut. During the past few weeks, friends and I hiked the Nipmuck in four stages, beginning at Mansfield Hollow State in Mansfield and finishing Monday at Bigelow Hollow State Park in Union.

About one third of Union’s nearly 30 square miles consists of state forest; with only about 850 residents, it is Connecticut’s least-populated town.

After hitting a dead end while searching for a place to drop off a car near the trail’s north end, we were extraordinarily lucky to bump into a man riding a lawn tractor — Mat Silbermann, whose family has lived in Union for five generations.

He provided complex but accurate directions unavailable in any guidebooks, hiking websites or maps we consulted. Mat also gave us his cellphone number in case we strayed off the trail.

“People are always getting lost here,” he said with a chuckle.

On that unsettling note, we drove about eight miles south to a trail crossing at unmarked Barlow Mill Road in Eastford — where we had left off after our previous excursion — and began a steep climb leading to the highest point on the Nipmuck Trail, 1,050-foot Coye Hill.

Even from this lofty perch, we could see little through or beyond dense forest that characterizes most of the Nipmuck’s undulating terrain, enhancing its sense of isolated grandeur.

“From beginning to end, much of the trail has a distinctly north woods feel, particularly the last two sections, meandering up and down hemlock-covered ravines,” Maggie observed.

The woods have been particularly quiet. Maggie, director emeritus of the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center in Mystic, noted that by mid-summer, such neotropical migrant birds as warblers, tanagers and vireos no longer are singing to attract mates or defend territories. Some even are beginning to wing their way south.

The trail passed alongside ponds, vernal pools and sphagnum bogs, where Maggie pointed out ladies’ tresses orchids and thickets of the flowering shrub clethra.

Dozens of different colorful fungi carpeted the forest floor: red, blue and apricot chantarelles; brown and yellow boletes; striped turkey tails; green russulas; black earth tongues; and octopus fungi, exuding scents that ranged “from sweet to musky to stinky,” she said.

A couple weeks earlier, we enjoyed similarly gratifying moments during a nearly nine-mile leg of the Nipmuck, while accompanied by Maggie’s son, Clancy Philbrick, along with Erin Stevenson, Will McGuire and Gary Burfoot.

During that hike, our group scrambled past an enormous glacial boulder dubbed Ladies Room Rock, and then stopped for lunch at Pixie Falls, an enchanting, tumbling-water grotto.

Shortly afterward, at one of the trail’s few paved crossings, Oakes Road in Ashford, we came upon a secluded cottage festooned with flowers, sculptures, trinkets and a beckoning sign: Free Masks.

“Take one!” Jane Allely insisted when she came outside to greet us.

Jane, who is retired and prefers to be called “Cricket,” said she and her cousin, Nancy Whitham, have made and given away nearly 8,000 masks since April 2020.

They began when Cricket’s grandson, who works at a grocery store, said he couldn’t find suitable COVID protection.

“It kind of took off from there,” Cricket said, noting that their masks have gone to schools, teachers, healthcare professional and firefighters all over the country.

You don’t have to hike the Nipmuck Trail to obtain a mask: Cricket puts her cart out from 8 a.m. to dusk, seven days a week.

Our final hike on Monday took us through Nipmuck State Forest, created in 1905, and adjoining Bigelow Hollow State Park, a recreation area established in 1949. Together they comprise 9,000 acres in Union, Stafford, Ashford, Willington and Woodstock.

The name Nipmuck, derived from the Algonquin word for “fresh water people,” refers to the Nipmuc tribe that occupied parts of what is now Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut long before English colonists migrated to the New World in the 1600s. The resulting disease, death, tribal divisions and dispersal represent one more chapter in the long, sad history of conflicts between indigenous people and new arrivals.

When Maggie, Bob and I at last reached the north end of 92-acre Breakneck Pond, we almost strolled past a short cement post that was partially hidden by a tree. The marker was engraved on one side with “CONN,” and “MASS” on the other.

“We’re here!” I exclaimed.

Our day wasn’t quite over, though. The three of us still had to tramp back to the car we had dropped off earlier. This required retracing our steps on the Nipmuck Trail for a mile or so, and then rambling uphill another couple miles via unmarked paths that online maps misleadingly referred to as East Shore Road and Breakneck Road. You’d need a Sherman tank to navigate these rocky, muddy corridors.

The added excursion brought the day’s total hiking distance to about 11 miles — not as long as the 18 miles we logged on Nipmuck’s first leg, but sufficiently lengthy to bring smiles and sighs of relief when the parked car finally came into view.

Distracted Nipmuck hikers may encounter challenges, as I reported in a July 22 column, “ANOTHER long journey begins with a single misstep,” but the largely uninterrupted, undeveloped swath of woodland and streams provides ample rewards.

Nipmuck Trail maps and directions are available at ctwoodlands.org, the website of the Connecticut Forest & Park Association, which maintains the blue-blazed footpath as part of a statewide hiking network.

Additional information about Nipmuck State Forest and Bigelow State Park is available at

https://portal.ct.gov/DEEP/State-Parks/Parks/Bigelow-Hollow-State-Park-Nipmuck-State-Forest.

 

 

 

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