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    Thursday, August 11, 2022

    Zoar Trail: A river runs through it

    Prydden Brook Falls cascades over moss-covered rocks along the Zoar Trail in Newtown. (Steve Fagin)   

    The Housatonic River, which tumbles from springs 1,430 feet up in the Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts and rages through some of New England’s wildest whitewater rapids, flattens into a placid, 10-mile stretch when it reaches Paugussett State Forest in Newtown, Connecticut.

    Backed up by the Stevenson Dam between Monroe and Oxford, the river here is known as Lake Zoar, one of several rewarding sights our hiking group enjoyed while rambling for six-and-a-half miles last week on the Zoar Trail.

    Maggie Jones, Chris Woodside and I decided to hike this blue-blazed loop in a clockwise direction, starting from a parking lot at the end of Great Quarter Road. That way we’d tackle more than four miles of rocky, hilly woodlands first, and then finish on 2.4 miles of gentler, scenic terrain overlooking the lake.

    Not that the initial segment wasn’t sufficiently rewarding, featuring a rich understory of ferns, American chestnut and chestnut oak sprouts, along with a healthy mix of mature deciduous trees, pine and hemlock.

    As Maggie pointed out, “There’s something interesting — whether plant, animal, rock, stream or water views — along nearly every section of the undulating route.”

    On one narrow stretch, she kept us from accidentally stepping on a red eft, the juvenile land-dwelling stage of the aquatic Eastern newt. These small amphibians typically appear after summer rain. Their bright orange-red coloration warns of a potent poison, tetrodotoxin, which might protect them from predators, but not from inattentive hikers.

    The distinctive, sweet call of a black-throated green warbler greeted us as we marched through a hemlock grove, where the remains of one fallen tree supported a crop of varnish shelf fungi.

    At last, Lake Zoar came into view — more pleasing to the eyes than to the ears this time of year, when power boats roar along at speeds up to 45 mph during the day and 25 mph at night.

    This noisy intrusion was mitigated a mile or so later, when we reached Prydden Brook Falls. A series of small cataracts cascaded 25 feet over moss-covered rocks that glittered in filtered sunshine — the perfect spot for a lunch break. An unmarked side trail led us down a steep slope to Lake Zoar’s west bank, where a couple of teenagers who were jumping off rocks had the water to themselves.

    This was not the case across the lake in Southbury, where we could see swimmers, sunbathers and picnickers packing Kettletown State Park. Visitors can drive to Kettletown’s swimming area, but if you want to take a dip on the Zoar Trail side, you have to hike. Both are contained within Paugussett State Forest’s 1,200-acre lower block.

    Given the choice, I’ll take a secluded shore over a crowded beach.

    That said, Kettletown also has wonderful trails; we’ll return to hike there another day. By the way, trails on both sides of the lake are for hikers only — no mountain bikers.

    The lake’s name comes from a section of Newtown and Monroe that once called itself Zoar, after the Biblical city Zoara near the Dead Sea.

    Chris noted that the lake also has a grislier connection to the more recent past.

    “It’s hard to think about Zoar Lake without thinking about the ‘woodchipper murder,’” she said.

    In a 1986 crime that shocked the nation, Richard Craft killed his wife, Helle, and fed her body into a woodchipper positioned on a bridge over the lake. Following his conviction, Craft was sentenced to 50 years in prison in 1990, but because of good-behavior guidelines that are no longer in effect, he was released in 2020 after having served only 30 years. At last report, Craft was living at a halfway house in New Haven.

    This gruesome crime inspired a scene in the movie “Fargo,” and in a twist that no Hollywood screenwriter could concoct, the area flooded by 975-acre Zoar Lake was once called Pleasantvale.

    The Stevenson Dam holds back the mighty Housatonic at the lake’s southern end. Completed in 1919, the dam supports a hydroelectric plant that produces 28.9 megawatts of power. Carrying about 10,000 vehicles a day on Route 34, its 1,213-foot bridge is Connecticut’s only highway span over a spillway.

    Just over 19 miles south of the dam, Housatonic empties into Long Island Sound between Stratford and Milford as a wide, tidal river. Like so many lengthy waterways, the mouth of the 149-mile Housatonic looks nothing like its source.

    More information about the Zoar Trail is available at ctwoodlands.org, the website of the Connecticut Forest & Park Association, which maintains the footpath, along with more than 800 miles of other trails across the state.

    A red eft, the juvenile land-dwelling stage of the aquatic Eastern newt, appears near a log and leaf litter along the trail. (Maggie Jones)
    A varnish shelf fungus grows on the trunk of a dead hemlock tree. (Steve Fagin)   
    A section of the Zoar Trail overlooks Lake Zoar. (Steve Fagin)
    Ferns proliferate in Paugussett State Forest. (Maggie Jones)

    Column brought back memories of a tragic day

    Sixteen-year-old Thelma Cole and her friend, Rosalie Parenteau, were teaching a lifesaving class to swimmers at a pond in Smithfield, R.I. when they heard the roar of an airplane plummeting to earth.

    “We looked up and saw a man trying to climb out the door. It looked like he was deciding whether or not to jump,” Thelma, now Thelma Boucher, recalled. She estimated the plane was only about 25 feet overhead.

    There was no time. The plane slammed into a hill and exploded in flames.

    “We ran down the hill to get help, and led firemen to the scene,” she said — but it was too late. Three servicemen who were aboard perished.

    The date was Aug. 15, 1943, and Mrs. Boucher, now 95, recalls details of the tragedy as if it were yesterday.

    “I’ll never forget that day,” she said in a phone conversation earlier this week.

    Her memory was rekindled by a column I wrote last week about a World War II memorial for the three men, placed alongside a trail at the 300-acre Wolf Hill Forest Preserve, where friends and I had gone hiking (“When maps and apps fail, trust your instincts,” published July 1).

    Flags, a plaque and a huge boulder ingeniously propped up on stone piers pay tribute to Lt. Saul Winsten, of Pawtucket, R.I., Lt. Otis R. Portewig, of Richmond, Va., and Sgt. Herbert D. Booth, of Rahway, N.J. They were aboard a Lockheed RB-34 Target Tug that crashed after losing one of its twin engines during a routine flight from Westover Field to Otis Field in Massachusetts.

    Back then, the preserve was part of a farm and Boy Scout camp, and the two high-school girls lived nearby.

    “It was our playground — we went there every day, walking in the woods,” Mrs. Boucher said.

    The farm and camp are long gone; the Smithfield Land Trust now owns the property and maintains miles of public hiking trails.

    Mrs. Boucher now lives in Charlestown, R.I. with her daughter, Lorraine Boucher, a retired teacher at Bennie Dover Middle School (now Bennie Dover Jackson Multi-Magnet Middle School Campus) in New London.

    “I still subscribe to The Day and showed the column to my mother. She was very excited,” she said. The daughter emailed me and helped arrange our phone interview.

    As an outdoor writer, I always try to include background on the history of the land where friends and I hike. It’s not often that I have the opportunity to talk with an eyewitness to an event from so long ago. Thanks, Mrs. Boucher, for sharing your memories.

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