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    Monday, March 04, 2024

    Alone in the ‘wilderness’

    At 441 feet, Mount Misery is the highest point at Pachaug State Forest in Voluntown. (Steve Fagin)
    A handicapped-accessible trail leads through the Rhododendron Sanctuary. (Steve Fagin)
    A backpacker’s shelter offers camping accommodations off the Nehantic Trail. (Steve Fagin)
    Signs and trails maintained by the Connecticut Forest & Park Association help hikers make their way through the woods. (Steve Fagin)

    OK, Pachaug State Forest may not exactly be “wilderness” – but this 28,804-acre swath of woodlands, lakes and rivers, where I set out on a solo hike the day after Thanksgiving, does comprise the wildest, remotest section of eastern Connecticut.

    Solitude wasn’t my only goal. Although I always enjoy the company of friends while hiking and kayaking, I wanted to remind myself of the rewards (and sometimes risks) of self-reliance.

    On last week’s hectic Black Friday, when throngs of shoppers packed malls and shopping centers, I rambled for six miles over towering ridges, into verdant valleys and across babbling brooks, while encountering exactly two other hikers.

    “Hey …”

    “Howya doing?”

    Those were the only words I uttered for nearly three hours – not counting the handful of expletives I spat to myself after stubbing my toe on a rock while climbing Mount Misery in Voluntown.

    At 441 feet, Mount Misery is hardly a perilous solo ascent on a chilly but sunny day in late November. Gazing from its bald summit at an unbroken expanse of rugged terrain rekindled memories of a much more rigorous February solo climb a number of years ago, when I served for a week as winter caretaker at Gray Knob Cabin in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.

    My job was to register hikers staying at the tiny hut, perched on a rocky knoll at 4,375 feet, as well as at Crag Camp, a nearby cabin overlooking King Ravine; and The Perch, an open-sided lean-to in Cascade Ravine. Twice a day I trudged for nearly a mile through deep snow to these isolated campsites, only to find them empty.

    No surprise: Few people venture to a destination where the temperature often dips below the single digits, the wind sometimes blasts in triple digits, and drifts measure in yards, not inches.

    I would tramp back and forth between Gray Knob and the other shelters, and then shuffle in circles inside the cabin to stay warm. Because firewood was scarce, I had been instructed not to light the wood stove unless there were guests, and only to keep frost from coating the inside of windows. I spent most of my time huddled in a sleeping bag that was rated to keep me warm in temperatures up to minus-30 degrees.

    After three days of isolation, I grew a little stir-crazy, and decided to climb nearby Mount Adams, a 5,793-foot peak that is second in elevation in the Northeast only to its neighbor, 6,288-foot Mount Washington. The trail was snow-packed, not icy, so instead of attaching full crampons to my boots I strapped on soles with small spikes, then donned an expedition parka, goggles, neoprene face mask, balaclava and heavy-duty over-mitts. I also stuffed a day pack with energy bars, insulated water bottle, head lamp, first-aid kit and bivvy sack, in case I had to hunker down for a spell.

    The sky cleared as I worked my way up Israel Ridge, and I exulted in a dazzling, panoramic view of snow-capped peaks that spread out across the Presidential Range.

    While treading cautiously up the shoulder of Mount Adams, though, I began to consider: What would happen if I slipped and twisted my ankle, or worse? Even if I carried a cellphone, there was no service in the mountains, and anyway, it would take hours for a rescue crew to reach me. By then it would be dark. Nobody would know I was missing until later that evening, when I missed my nightly check-in radio call from base camp.

    I peered one more moment at the stunning, but forbidding landscape, turned around, and traipsed back to the hut. No regrets – I lived to hike another day.

    Incidentally, the next day brought a group of hikers who had slogged up relentlessly steep Lowe’s Path, despite a snowstorm most flatlanders would characterize as a blizzard, but New Hampsherites would simply call flurries.

    A group of hikers arrived the next day, despite a wind-driven snowstorm. I was thrilled to finally have company, and also to light the wood stove.

    Solo adventurers face more daunting challenges when they take to the sea. I may feel comfortable kayaking alone on lakes and rivers, when wind, waves and currents are manageable, but almost always paddle with at least one other companion when heading out onto the open waters of Fishers Island or Long Island sounds.

    I still shiver when recalling one exception, when two friends and I launched from Noank’s Esker Point in mid-winter to check out the migratory seal colony near the eastern tip of New York’s Fishers Island – a voyage I’ve made many times. After the three of us paddled about four miles southeast, diagonally across the sound, to Hungry Point, and bobbing among dozens of harbor seals, it was time to head back to Noank.

    Except my friends decided that because it was such a nice day, they wanted to continue kayaking around the south side of Fishers Island, then paddle on the Atlantic Ocean and through The Race before returning to Esker Point. I’ve made this 18-mile voyage many times, but never in winter. I also had been paddling a fast but tippy boat, not the more stable vessel I typically take offshore.

    “You guys go ahead. I’ll be fine paddling back by myself,” I said.

    “You sure?”

    “No problem. It’s calm, I’ll be back on terra firma in less than an hour.”

    Off they went, and I steered toward the Connecticut shore. Minutes later, the wind picked up and whitecaps appeared. Uh-oh.

    For the next half-hour, I lapsed into a zone of hyper-attentiveness, stroking steadily while assessing every wave and current. Then – a welcome sight: Another group of kayakers, dead ahead, also paddling toward Esker Point

    I sprinted to catch up.

    “Hey guys! Mind if I tag along?”

    “Sure! More the merrier! “

    All of us landed safely at Esker not long afterward. My two friends, by the way, encountered rough conditions on the south side of Fishers – one broke his paddle – but managed to get back hours later.

    I experienced no such drama during last week’s solo hike at Pachaug. I chose a route that crested Mount Misery, and continued onto sections of the Pachaug and Nehantic trails that I’d never explored, including a detour to a hidden shelter.

    I ended by strolling through the Rhododendron Sanctuary near Pachaug’s Chapman Area, where my car was parked. This lush grove of evergreen bushes explodes in a riot of pink blossoms during June, but is stunning in any season.

    All in all, it was a great day to be in the woods – either alone, or with company.

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