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    Tuesday, February 27, 2024

    Hiking to the Massachusetts border on the Shenipsit Trail (Part I)

    A glistening cascade tumbles over a moss-covered slab near the Shenipsit Trail near the border of East Hampton and Portland. (Steve Fagin)

    “OK, I’m going to walk a little slower over the next section,” Larry Lawrence said. His nonchalant tone suggested nothing more dramatic ahead than a squirrel nibbling on an acorn.

    Then he offhandedly added, “This is where we could come across rattlesnakes.”

    Our hiking group had been approaching a series of steep ledges on the Shenipsit Trail in Glastonbury that is famous, or infamous, for being home to the state’s largest known population of timber rattlers.

    I had mixed feelings. On one hand, it would be thrilling to see this endangered species for the first time; on the other, while Connecticut has not recorded any rattlesnake-bite deaths (the reclusive reptiles typically retreat rather than strike,) they are poisonous vipers.

    I like the advice W.C. Fields once gave: “Always carry a flagon of whiskey in case of snake bite — and furthermore, always carry a small snake.”

    For better or worse, we wound up seeing nothing more venomous than a harmless garter snake. Just as well — I’m pretty sure none of us carried anything more potent than Gatorade.

    For the past few weeks, friends and I have been hiking the Shenipsit in stages from East Hampton to Stafford, and hope to finish soon. We initially didn’t plan to traverse the entire 50-mile footpath, but changed our itinerary after having had the good fortune to meet Larry early on.

    Our journey began in early May when Maggie Jones, Mary Sommer and I, seeking to hike somewhere none of us had been before, chose Meshomasic State Forest — Connecticut’s first state forest, established in 1903, and the second-oldest in the country. The Shenipsit Trail is the only blue-blazed trail with access to the 9,000-acre forest, so we drove to the southern terminus on Gadpouch Road in Cobalt, a borough of East Hampton that is named for the mineral prized for its brilliant blue color used to decorate pottery.

    An abandoned cobalt mine, where workers dug up tons of the mineral in the 18th and 19th centuries for import around the world, lies not far from the Shenipsit trailhead.

    In less than half a mile, we scrambled up the steep ridge of Great Hill, and veered briefly onto the Lookout Trail to take in a stellar view of the Connecticut River, some two miles to our west.

    “Worth the detour,” Mary noted.

    We planned to continue hiking for four or five miles, turn around, retrace our steps, and then bid farewell to the Shenipsit.

    But in two miles, while approaching unpaved Woodchopper Road, we noticed a man who carried a hiking stick get out of a white van that was parked in a small clearing.

    Turns out we had stumbled across Larry, a member of the Meshomasic Hiking Club who has traversed the entire Shenipsit Trail and leads regular hikes in the forest. He also spends his spare time clearing litter and fallen branches from the trail, which is part of the Connecticut Forest & Park Association’s statewide blue-blazed path network.

    Our group struck up a conversation, and Larry agreed to accompany us. We couldn’t have asked for a better guide. Larry soon led us to abandoned feldspar and mica mines, and described alluring features farther north: tumbling waterfalls, secluded grottos, towering ridges, wildflower meadows … By the end of the day, we invited him to join us the rest of the way on hikes every week or so ranging in distance from six to 12 miles.

    Larry arranged to have either a friend or his wife, Lorraine, help him drop off his van at the northern end of each hike, so we could ride back with him to our car. Otherwise, we’d have to hike the Shenipsit both ways while passing through Portland, East Hampton, Glastonbury, Manchester, Bolton, Vernon, Tolland, Ellington, Somers and Stafford.

    The back of Larry’s van has no seats, and assorted tools lie scattered on the hard floor, which has made for a bumpy ride, but the ride has been a welcome relief from hours of tramping over rugged terrain.

    During various outings, we’ve been joined by Phil Plouffe, Andy Lynn, Chris Woodside, Steve Kurczy, and Steve’s toddler son, Manny, happily ensconced in an enormous, padded child carrier on his father’s back.

    Steve has carried Manny this way to the summits of all 48 New Hampshire Mountains that rise above 4,000 feet, so didn’t break a sweat scaling 735-foot Case Mountain in Manchester.

    Other highlights of our hike so far have included views from the top of 893 feet Bald Hill in Glastonbury, secluded serenity at Flat Brook Falls, strolling through verdant corridors lined with ferns, moss and mountain laurel, as well as along the Hop River Bike Path near Bolton Notch, which was festooned with dozens of lady slippers in bloom.

    Maggie also kept up a running commentary on all the flora and fauna.

    She noted that during our first hike, the forest was still mostly brown, except for green moss covering rocks and fallen logs, patches of ramps, and a few colorful wildflowers, such as columbine, early saxifrage and trout lily.

    “The first waves of neotropical migrant birds have started to arrive — Louisiana waterthrush, black-and white warbler, and blue-gray gnatcatchers hunting for insects along streams and in the treetops,” Maggie added.

    During subsequent forays we began to see star flower, trillium and lady's slippers, and hear the calls of scarlet tanagers, veerys, wood thrushes and ovenbirds — all signifying “the quality of this habitat and the importance of protecting large preserves,” Maggie said.

    On a less-than-scintillating note, we also encountered several dirt bikes, roaring illegally through the state forest, and ended one day on a three-mile road walk that served as a safer alternative to dashing across busy Route 2.

    We’re looking forward to other features that lie ahead, including 1,075-foot Soapstone Mountain in Somers and 523-acre Shenipsit Lake, which locals call “The Snip.” Shenipsit is the Native American word for “at the great lake.” I’ll write about the rest of the trail next week.

    More information about the Shenipsit is available on the Connecticut Forest & Park Association’s website, ctwoodlands org.

    More information about the 400-member Meshomasic Hiking Club, which has donated more than $50,000 to land trusts for open-space preservation, is available at meshomasichikingclub.org.

    Great Hill on the Shenipsit Trail offers a view through pitch pine trees of the Connecticut River. (Steve Fagin)
    Larry Lawrence holds a rock containing sheets of mica at an abandoned mica mine along the Shenipsit Trail in East Hampton. (Steve Fagin)
    Maggie Jones, Phil Plouffe, Larry Lawrence and Andy Lynn begin a three-mile road walk to avoid having to cross Route 2 while hiking on the Shenipsit Trail. (Steve Fagin)

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