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Trailblazing at the Sheets Forest in North Stonington

Walking trails sometimes evolve from old logging roads, Native American footpaths, deserted quarries, abandoned rights of way and former campgrounds, but every so often hiking advocates have to hack modern-day routes through the woods from scratch.

That’s where trailblazers like Carl Tjerandsen, Sue Sutherland and Dean Berardi take over.

The three led a group of hikers last week on their latest creation: a network of paths that wind through the 86-acre Herman E. Sheets Forest in North Stonington.

“It’s still a work in progress,” Carl explained, noting that the Avalonia Land Conservancy (ALC), which acquired the nature preserve last August, must authorize a management plan before officially opening new trails to the public.

Terri Eickel, ALC’s director of development and programming, said a ribbon-cutting likely will take place in late spring. 

The three-mile, figure-eight route meanders through the heart of the Green Falls Rift Valley, a hilly, rocky swath crisscrossed by streams, and dotted with vernal pools and beaver ponds just west of the Rhode Island border. It contains lush expanses of mountain laurel and a healthy mix of hardwoods and evergreens, which contribute to the forest’s soothing sense of serenity.

The six-mile-long Green Falls River (also called the Green Fall River), which flows through a section of the Sheets Forest, is part of the Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge, home to more than 40 species of birds and animals.

The new preserve includes Laurel Glen, one of North Stonington’s original historic villages. Laurel Glen and nearby Clark’s Falls bustled with mills powered by the Green Falls River from the early 18th century through the late 20th century, when the last one, Clark’s Falls Grist Mill, shut down.

Avalonia’s new preserve is named for Herman Sheets of Groton, who bought the Puttker Road property in 1982. The retired engineer and university professor died in 2006.

His widow, Paulann Sheets, a former Groton town councilor and longtime supporter of environmental causes now living on Shelter Island in New York, told writer Melina Khan last year that his grandchildren enjoyed visiting the property, which the family called “granddad's forest.”

Determined to keep it undeveloped, she sold it to Avalonia for $325,000. Since its incorporation in 1968 — known then as the Mashantucket Land Trust — ALC has preserved some 100 properties throughout the region totaling more than 4,000 acres.

Carl, who calls himself ALC’s “stick-picker and weed-puller,” spent months studying maps and tramping through the property before starting to clear a path. His goal: Take hikers past such distinctive natural features as overlooks, streams and rock formations, without encroaching on fragile environmental terrain.

“You don’t want to interfere with flora and fauna,” Carl said. Using loppers, saws and other hand tools, he, Sue and Dean previously helped establish trails at other ALC properties, including nearly 10 miles of paths at Avalonia’s 527-acre TriTown Forest Preserve spanning North Stonington, Griswold and Preston.

“Carl is the master. We just follow him,” Dean said.

Carl said he was struck by the Sheets Forest’s undulating contours created by receding glaciers some 12,000 years ago, and likened the residual, rippled land to turbulent ocean waves.

Myriad streams, ponds and pools — also remnants of the last ice age — required the trailblazers to make a series of twists and turns. When water crossings were unavoidable, they placed wooden planks to serve as temporary bridges. Once the route is approved, volunteers may construct more secure spans.

One particularly sublime section of the proposed route follows the Green Falls River, now partially frozen.

Carl said some members of the ALC have expressed concern that this part of the trail could flood in the spring, suggesting it might have to be dropped from the final plan.

“What do you think?” he asked, as we gazed at the narrow, crystal-clear river.

“This is one of the most beautiful parts of the forest,” I replied, “It would be a shame to deprive visitors of the opportunity to hike here.” My recommendation: Post a sign advising hikers that this section might be difficult or impassable in high water. Worst case, they’d have to turn around or get their feet wet.

All of us who enjoy roaming through the region’s magnificent parks, nature preserves and wildlife sanctuaries owe a debt of gratitude to the land trusts, conservation organizations and government entities, along with countless volunteers who have set aside and maintained such an abundance of open space.

“It is our greatest legacy,” Carl said.

 

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