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    Tuesday, November 29, 2022

    The White Memorial Foundation: A nature preserve for all seasons

    Talley, Chris Woodside’s 11-year-old poodle, follows hikers on a boardwalk trail at Litchfield’s White Memorial Foundation. She remained on a leash elsewhere during a hike of more than eight miles, but with a narrow walkway and no other people in sight was allowed to walk freely on this section. (Steve Fagin)
    Ferns and wildflowers line a forest trail. (Steve Fagin)
    The 4,000-acre preserve includes a section of the Bantam River and 10 small ponds. (Steve Fagin)

    The trails that wind through lush forests and cranberry bogs at Litchfield’s White Memorial Foundation are as wide, flat and smooth as carriage roads – no tripping over roots and rocks, scrambling up steep ridges or stumbling down deep ravines.

    “You can look around while you’re walking, not just watching your feet,” Chris Woodside said, as four of us strolled past a dazzling expanse of ferns and wildflowers.

    Had we the time and inclination, Chris, Maggie Jones, Phil Plouffe and I could have sauntered for 40 miles on these paths. We also could have ridden bikes, kayaked on Connecticut’s largest natural lake, taken a swim, pitched tents at a campground (in season), visited a nature museum, attended environmental programs, cross-country skied in winter, ridden horses, or spent the day birdwatching – White Memorial has it all.

    One thing the 4,000-acre preserve doesn’t have is noise. Nestled in the hills of northwestern Connecticut, White Memorial offers serene silence – no intrusive highways, construction sites or railroad tracks nearby, just trees, ponds, meadows and marshes.

    “Even the birds are quiet,” Maggie said. Only a few calls penetrated – a red-shouldered hawk, pileated woodpecker and brown creeper. A few migrant warblers and kinglets feasted on insects in the treetops, keeping an eye out for hungry hawks.

    Mixed woodlands containing towering hemlocks and stately pines, conifer plantations, old fields, shrubland thickets and varied wetlands earn White Memorial a statewide reputation as an excellent interior birding destination, she said.

    Alain C. White and his sister, May W. White, established the foundation in 1913 to honor their parents, John Jay and Louise, who made land preservation their mission. The Whites had purchased several contiguous properties on the north shore of 947-acre Bantam Lake and lived in a gracious mansion they called Whitehall, which now serves as the foundation’s conservation center.

    With a full-time professional staff and core of volunteers, the center provides a variety of education programs, while offering the public free, year-round use of trails.

    We wound up hiking more than eight miles, stopping occasionally to snack on wild teaberries, and to admire a wide variety of late summer wildflowers Maggie identified: purple New York aster, white-topped showy aster and goldenrod, all offering feeding platforms for butterflies and bumblebees. She also pointed out the round fruits of buttonbush, and burgundy-colored leaves of silky dogwood, waterlilies and turtlehead flowers.

    We steered clear of a poison sumac patch, glowing crimson in early fall; like poison ivy, its leaves can leave a rash.

    Our hike included only one challenging section, near Plunge Pond, when we had to cross a narrow stream on a tippy log. Not wanting to take a plunge, I chose to wade, while the others managed to stay dry.

    We saved the best trail for last: a mile-long wooden boardwalk that threads through marshes and shrubby swamp around the perimeter of Little Pond – one of 10 small ponds on the property. A gentle breeze rustling tall grasses mixed with the shuffling of our boots – the only sounds we heard.

    White Hall also has a number of notable areas we didn’t have time to visit: Apple Hill, Trail of the Senses with Braille signs, an interpretive nature trail and Ice House Trail. The Bantam River flows for six miles through the property; White Hall also owns more than half the shoreline of Bantam Lake. With so much more to explore, we’ll have to return.

    The White Memorial Foundation, two miles west of Litchfield, off Route 202 at 80 Whitehall Road, is about 80 miles from New London – well worth the drive.

    For directions, and more information, visit https://whitememorialcc.org

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