If you like rocks, Chatfield Hollow is really gneiss
For a state mostly celebrated for such natural features as 100-plus miles of Long Island Sound shoreline, some 200,000 acres of public forests, and more than 3,000 lakes, ponds and reservoirs, Connecticut has more than its share of rocks.
Yet for all the different formations that friends and I have encountered during years of clambering up towering traprock ridges, sliding down scree-riddled slopes, and even crawling into a stygian cave, none of those experiences compared to our hike the other day at Killingworth’s Chatfield Hollow State Park.
“This is really fun!” Andy Lynn exclaimed, as he, Maggie Jones, Carl Astor and I snaked through tight fissures, scrambled among jumbled heaps of boulders and ducked beneath horizontal overhangs. These structures along the Chimney Trail are composed of a granite-type bedrock called Monson Gneiss, formed during eons of plate tectonics, volcanism, glaciation and erosion.
“Geologically, this is one of the most active earthquake zones in New England,” Maggie noted, adding that the park has “a magical, fairyland aspect that made us feel like a bunch of kids.”
We hadn’t decided to visit Chatfield Hollow just to play among rocks, though. My curiosity had been piqued by an ongoing controversy involving the potential sale of an adjoining 255-acre Boy Scout camp. This issue has pitted conservationists against a high-profile developer, prompted litigation, and attracted the attention of Governor Ned Lamont and State Attorney General William Tong.
After the Connecticut chapter of the Boy Scouts of America put the property up for sale last September, real estate magnate Margaret Streicker, who hopes to build a housing development, offered to buy the land for $4.6 million. Streicker, the CEO of Fortitude Capital who ran unsuccessfully against U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro of New Haven last November, also serves on the Boy Scout council’s executive board.
A day before the Scout’s April 30 deadline for bids, opponents who had formed a nonprofit group called Pathfinders placed an undisclosed counter-offer to buy the property. At last word, no decision has been made on which side will prevail, but Lamont recently told reporters, “We’d like to make an effort to see if working with the community we can save this for posterity and keep a camp going there.” He added that Tong has been talking with the Scouts “about the nature of the deal.”
In addition, Madison resident David Stephenson has filed a lawsuit claiming that because the property is home to the Richard English Bird Sanctuary, any development would imperil natural resources and contradict the Scouts’ charitable mission.
The proposed sale comes at the same time the national Boy Scouts organization declared bankruptcy in response to $2.7 billion in claims by tens of thousands of sex abuse survivors. The Connecticut chapter has said this issue had nothing to do its decision to sell the camp, instead citing declining enrollment.
In the meantime, conservation advocates are continuing their preservation campaign.
During part of last week’s hike, we were accompanied by Sigrun N. Gadwa, an ecologist, soil scientist and wetland scientist hired by the Connecticut Botanical Society to prepare an environmental assessment of the property.
“With its spectacular rock formations, forest, water features and physical challenges, the Chatfield Trail draws young and older nature lovers alike. It and the Deer Lake property have a high capacity to foster a nature-conservation mindset and geology and botany education,” she said.
Sigrun and Maggie pointed out a number of spring plants and flowers now in bloom, including wood anemone, marsh marigold and early saxifrage.
“The cascading song of Louisiana waterthrush, a ground nesting bird that requires an extensive forest interior, indicates a healthy ecosystem and nearby watercourse. We heard one singing near every stream we crossed,” Maggie noted.
Other species we observed included ovenbird, great-crested flycatcher, blue-gray gnatcatcher, yellow-rumped warbler, brown creeper and black and white warbler.
Carl quipped, “The only thing better than having a naturalist along on a hike is having TWO naturalists.”
After Sigrun took a shortcut back to her car, Carl, Andy, Maggie and I continued hiking, eventually covering about seven miles
At one point we noticed a painted arrow pointing to a seemingly impassible vertical crack in the rocks. There was no sign of an exit — presumably it was hidden around a bend.
Undaunted, Carl dropped to his hands and knees and proceeded to squirm into the passage. Soon, he disappeared, but we continued to hear muffled grunts.
“You all right?” we called. No answer.
“Guess he’s OK,” I said.
Maggie entered next, followed by Andy, and then me.
Following several minutes of squirming and wriggling, we emerged into daylight.
After dusting ourselves off, we checked a map and learned we had navigated through a popular park feature known as the Fat Man Squeeze. It seemed to be pretty tight regardless of one’s girth.
Located off Route 80, about six miles east of the Connecticut River, 412-acre Chatfield Hollow is contiguous to other protected lands, including Cockaponset State Forest and Forster Pond State Park.
According to the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, the park is named for the three Chatfield brothers who arrived from England about 1639 and were believed to operate a gristmill along what became known as Chatfield Brook.
In pre-Colonial times, Native Americans hunted and fished in the area, and held tribal gatherings in what is now called Indian Council Caves. A trail they once used is now the park road.
Some 20 miles of trails crisscross Chatfield Hollow, so we’ll have to return to explore the rest of the park.