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    Saturday, March 02, 2024

    Treading carefully on an icy Nipmuck Trail

    Hikers tread cautiously over an icy section of the Nipmuck Trail in Mansfield. (Steve Fagin)
    Crawling is one way to traverse an icy trail. (Maggie Jones)
    After an icy stretch, pine needles provide surer footing. (Steve Fagin)
    The trail crosses a meadow, before heading into the woods. (Steve Fagin)

    While tramping along an evergreen-lined trail in Mansfield Hollow State Park one frosty morning last week, Maggie Jones, Phil Plouffe and I skidded to a halt.

    “Uh-oh,” Phil said, eyes fixed on a huge sheet of ice that sloped across the trail.

    “I can’t believe I left my spikes in the car!” Maggie groaned, referring to traction devices that attach to hiking boots.

    “Mine are still at home – never thought we’d need them,” I lamented.

    We had three choices: Turn around, hike back to the car and call it a day; skirt the ice by wading waist-deep through a semi-frozen stretch of the Natchaug River; or shuffle ahead cautiously, trying not to break our necks.

    Actually, I quickly switched to a fourth option: Dropped to my hands and knees, and crawled. I may have looked and felt ridiculous, but at least didn’t skitter into a tree or fall on my head.

    Sure-footed Phil, who years ago crossed Nepal’s notoriously treacherous Khumbu Icefall on Mount Everest, and just last weekend clambered along ice-coated Franconia Ridge in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, had no trouble navigating Mansfield Hollow’s comparatively easy footpath. Maggie took it a little slower and managed to stay upright; I trailed a few yards behind, sacrificing dignity for security.

    The icy path eventually gave way to dry pine needles, and we were able to resume at a brisker pace. But in a short distance, a second, more expansive swath of ice blocked the path. I rolled my eyes, got down on all fours, and resumed crawling.

    “The best part: We get to do it all again, on the return trip,” I noted wryly.

    Our group was on a six-mile, out-and-back hike along a section of the Nipmuck Trail that we inadvertently bypassed in 2021.

    Back then, we had been hiking in stages the 40-mile footpath between Mansfield Hollow State Park in Mansfield and Bigelow Hollow State Park in Union, near the Massachusetts Border. On one of those stages, we missed a sign, strayed from Nipmuck’s East Branch, and wandered onto the West Branch.

    After hiking 18 miles until sunset that day, we staggered to a parking lot where we thought our car was parked, and to our dismay, found it empty. We pulled out maps, realized our mistake, and faced the grim prospect of hiking another 10 miles in the dark to reach our car.

    That’s when Karen Molloy, who was walking her dog nearby, came to our rescue.

    “You poor dears!” she exclaimed, after hearing our plight. Karen then retrieved her car and drove us from the West Branch parking lot on Puddin Lane to the East Branch parking lot on North Windham Road.

    Last week, I suggested to Phil and Maggie that we return to Mansfield Hollow, to hike part of the Nipmuck’s East Branch that we missed in 2021.

    Nipmuck’s East Branch follows sections of a wide path that cuts through a farm pasture before skirting the east bank of Mansfield Hollow Lake, a 450-acre reservoir that supplies water to the eastern Connecticut towns of Mansfield, Windham and Chaplin.

    Nipmuck, an Algonquin word for “fresh water people,” refers to the Nipmuc tribe that inhabited parts of what is now Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut long before English colonists arrived in the 1600s.

    As its name suggests, Mansfield Hollow is a deep depression formed when the last glacier retreated from Connecticut some 15,000 years ago. Last December’s epic rainstorms flooded many low spots, which then froze across the trail.

    We were astonished to see sticks and other debris scattered at least 15 feet above the Natchaug River’s normal waterline.

    “I can’t imagine how high the water was then,” Phil said.

    We continued hiking through corridors of mountain laurel and white pine, while serenaded by the raucous cries of blue jays and repetitive piping calls of a pileated woodpecker.

    This large, redheaded insectivore looks and sounds like Woody Woodpecker from the old cartoons, and are a favorite sight in winter. Hikers who may not encounter the actual bird likely will hear its distinctive call, or its rat-tat-tat drumming. The pileated woodpecker’s jackhammer beak carves oval holes in tree trunks, leaving chips scattered on the ground.

    The three of us followed the trail north over corrugated terrain for about three miles, until it crossed Route 89. If we wanted to complete Nipmuck’s entire East Branch, we’d have to cover another five miles or so, and then hike eight more miles back to the car.

    “This is far enough,” Phil pronounced.

    We sat on a rock, munched snacks, and then began hiking three miles back to the car. We’ll finish the East Branch another day.

    A map of Mansfield Hollow State Park is available at portal.ct.gov/-/media/DEEP/stateparks/maps/mansfieldhollowpdf.pdf.

    More information about the Nipmuck Trail is available from the Connecticut Forest & Park Association at ctwoodlands.org.

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