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    Friday, August 12, 2022

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

    An observation tower stands atop Soapstone Mountain in Somers on the Shenipsit Trail. Steve Fagin

    A blazing sun beat down on asphalt the other afternoon while cars and trucks roared past fast food restaurants, gas stations and other businesses lining Route 30, just beyond the I-84 interchange in Vernon.

    "Wonderful day for a hike," I muttered, but none of my four companions heard me over the din, as we continued to trudge joylessly along the side of the road.

    After a mile or so, our group finally exited the commercial zone, followed a blue-blazed trail marker and entered blissfully silent, shaded woods. We then began strolling merrily on a smooth path lined with lush ferns and mountain laurel overlooking a secluded lake.

    Such stark contrasts prevail on the Shenipsit Trail, which extends 50 miles from East Hampton in Central Connecticut to Stafford, near the Massachusetts border. Friends and I have spent the past several weeks hiking this footpath in stages, ranging from six to 12 miles.

    I described the first half of our journey in a June 2 column, "Hiking to the Massachusetts border on the Shenipsit Trail (Part I)." This second and final installment covers the last two legs of our journey from Valley Falls Park in Vernon to Ellington, and then from Ellington to the end of the trail in Stafford.

    Among those joining the next-to-last stage were Maggie Jones, Phil Plouffe, Chris Woodside and Steve Kurczy, who toted his 2-year-old son, Manny, in a backpack carrier. For the final leg, the group included Maggie, Phil, Mary Sommer and Andy Lynn.

    The most important member throughout the expedition has been our unofficial guide, Larry Lawrence, who we met by luck on our first day on the trail and who agreed to join us the rest of the way. If it weren't for Larry, a member of the Meshomasic Hiking Club who previously had hiked the entire trail, we probably would have wound up meandering an extra 50 miles, owing to our tendency to take wrong turns.

    A highlight of the penultimate stage featured a hike along Shenipsit Lake, a 523-acre, natural reservoir that borders Ellington, Tolland and the Rockville section of Vernon. Not only did this stretch offer a welcome respite from a lengthy, oppressive road walk, it underscored how once-busy corridors can be repurposed as tranquil woodland trails.

    In the early 20th Century, this section had been part of an extensive electric railroad network that once crisscrossed Connecticut. Happily, a growing number of these former railbeds have been converted to hiking and biking trails.

    Nature also is resilient, Maggie pointed out. We saw a painted turtle laying eggs next to a chain link fence near a noisy highway, tree swallows and catbirds feeding on insects near a tangle of invasive plants and manmade retention pond in a residential neighborhood, and an enormous dead hemlock tree covered with living mosses and mushrooms.

    Our south-north excursion "followed the unfolding of spring, from ramps and trout lilies and trilliums in late April to lady's slippers and mountain laurel in May and June," Maggie noted.

    She also identified an ever-changing chorus of birds that serenaded us in densely forested regions, including black-throated green warblers, hermit thrushes, scarlet tanagers, ovenbirds and veerys

    The high point of our last stage, literally and figuratively, came atop 1,075 Soapstone Mountain in Somers, the tallest spot on the Shenipsit Trail. Most visitors park at the base off Gulf Road and saunter a little more than a mile up a gradually graded, gravel road; our five-mile route followed a steep, narrow path, riddled with slippery rocks and stream crossings. Plus, once cresting Soapstone Mountain, we still had nearly six more miles of hiking to reach the end of the trail.

    With temperature and humidity in the mid-80s, we arrived at the summit sweaty and tired, but not too exhausted to climb another 30 feet up a lookout tower with a panoramic view of assorted peaks beyond the Springfield, Mass. skyline, including 3,41-foot Mount Greylock in Massachusetts. If the sky had been clearer, we might have seen Vermont's Green Mountains and New Hampshire's White Mountains.

    We stretched out on the tower floor and ate lunch, temporarily cooled by a refreshing breeze.

    The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection rebuilt this tower in 2018 to replace a dilapidated one torn down in 2014.

    The state had purchased the mountaintop in 1927 so it could build a fire tower to serve Connecticut's northern forests. Before that tower was replaced, the U.S. Army used it as a World War II lookout station.

    Soapstone Mountain is named for the soft rock that Native Americans carved into bowls during pre-colonial times. We bypassed a side trail that would have taken us to an old quarry where soapstone was mined until 1888, and descended directly for half a mile to Gulf Road.

    From there we re-entered the forest and marched another 2.5 miles, passing Britney's Pond and crossing Route 190 before reaching Old Country Road in Somers.

    "OK, we've reached the finish. We can stop here," I joked. Some of the others looked puzzled.

    "This is where the trail used to end," Larry explained. Without missing a step, he crossed the dirt road and continued following blue blazes north.

    In 2014, the Connecticut Forest & Park Association, which manages the trail as part of an 825-mile statewide walking-path network, extended the Shenipsit by 2.5 miles to Greaves Road Stafford. This last section took us up and over Bald Mountain, along with a series of ridges.

    At last, we arrived at Greaves Road. Larry's van, which he had dropped off earlier that morning with help from his wife, Lorraine, was a welcome sight.

    No rear seats for passengers, but we were too whipped to mind.

    "Where's our next adventure?" Phil asked, as we bounced around on the floor while Larry drove back to my car on Hopkins Road. No rest for the weary.

    "I don't know," I replied — with hundreds more miles of trails that we have yet to explore, "I'm sure we'll think of something."

    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.<

    http://www.meshomasichikingclub.org/>

    Mountain laurel is in full bloom along the Shenipsit Trail. Mary Sommer
    Moss and mushrooms cover the trunk of a dead hemlock tree along the Shenipsit Trail near the summit of Soapstone Mountain in Somers. Maggie Jones

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