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    Friday, June 21, 2024

    Lady slippers step out at Cockaponset State Forest

    Lady slippers grow amid moss and leaves at Cockaponset State Forest in Haddam. (Steve Fagin)
    Mountain laurels form a canopy over the Cockaponset Trail. (Steve Fagin)
    Wild azaleas brighten the forest. (Steve Fagin)

    After a relentlessly rainy and chilly start to spring, this week’s warm temperatures finally stirred awake woodland foliage, ferns and wildflowers, including a profusion of fan favorites: pink lady slippers.

    “Look at them all!” Marco Barres exclaimed, as our hiking group strolled past an array of the showy plants at Cockaponset State Forest in Haddam.

    Listed as a species of “special concern” under the Native Plant Protection Act, the pink lady slipper (Cypripedium acaule) is a member of the orchid family that supposedly gets its name because of a resemblance to a woman’s shoe. If you ask me, the fleshy and vein-covered pouch-shaped blossoms look less like footwear and more like body parts that are better left unmentioned.

    Anyway, it’s always a treat to see lady slippers during their brief vernal appearance. Last year, friends and I spotted only a handful during numerous springtime hikes throughout Connecticut; this week, we encountered more than 100 while hiking about five miles at Cockaponset.

    “We’ve never seen so many in one place,” Maggie Jones said.

    Also joining the outing were Phil Plouffe and Chris Woodside, making it a partial reunion of Summit New England, an epic expedition I organized years ago in which participants climbed the high points of all six New England states, back-to-back, during one frenetic, sleep-deprived, 40-hour stretch, including Maine’s Mount Katahdin and New Hampshire’s Mount Washington on the same day.

    The pace and itinerary this week at Cockaponset were considerably more relaxed, as we stopped frequently to observe or listen to birds that Maggie pointed out: pileated woodpeckers, scarlet tanagers, ovenbirds, Louisiana water thrushes, brown creepers, worm-eating warblers, American redstarts, red-eyed vireos …

    She also identified a proliferation of fronds: lady ferns, interrupted ferns, tapering ferns, royal ferns, maidenhair, hay-scented ferns, cinnamon ferns and marginal wood ferns – all in one shaded spot, growing side-by-side.

    “It’s a great forest,” said Chris, who hikes there often and volunteers to maintain a section of the 7.4-mile Cockaponset Trail.

    Had we the time and inclination, our group could have hiked 20 miles of blazed trails at the 17,000-acre state forest, which extends through 11 central Connecticut towns just west of the Connecticut River. We also could have hiked some 80 additional miles on unmarked paths and unpaved forest roads, some of which were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.

    A decade earlier, the state began acquiring land for a forest that once had been inhabited by several Native American tribes: Mattabesetts, who occupied what is now Middletown; the Wangunks of Haddam; Hammonasetts of Madison, Clinton and Killingworth; and the Menunkatucks of Guilford. Cockaponset is named for a Native American chief who is buried in Haddam.

    The state forest today includes trails for hiking, mountain biking and horseback-riding; as well as a beach at Pattaconk Reservoir Recreation Area near Chester. Another highlight is the Chester Cedar Swamp, declared a National Natural Landmark in 1973.

    We began hiking on the blue-blazed Cockaponset Trail after parking on the west side of Beaver Meadow Road in Haddam. Well-marked and well-maintained by volunteers from the Connecticut Forest and Park Association, this trail is fairly flat and easy to follow.

    Before looping back to our cars on the orange-and-blue Wildwood Trail, we took a short detour on paths leading to a marsh, where a symphony of green frogs serenaded us. The single-track Wildwood Trail rises and falls along sheer walls, through a forest dominated by oaks and hickory trees, with a scattering of hemlocks and pines – all in all, a satisfying, sometimes challenging route enhanced by wild azaleas and countless pink lady slippers in full bloom.

    By the way, it’s not only illegal to dig up any plants from state land for transplant into home gardens, it’s also futile when it comes to lady slippers. They grow only in soil infused with a specific fungus, and will almost always die if transplanted.

    Lady slippers also rely on bumble bees that briefly become trapped inside their blossoms to spread their pollen, as Maggie explained.

    So, leave them alone for others to enjoy, and abide by the ethical hiker’s credo: Leave only footsteps and take only pictures.

    There are numerous hiking options at Cockaponset. The trailhead we started from is located on Beaver Meadow Road in Haddam, less than a quarter-mile west of Exit 14 on Route 9.

    For more information and trail maps, visit portal.ct.gov/deep/state-parks/forests/cockaponset-state-forest.

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