Cedar Wood Preserve in Norwich offers people with disabilities access to nature
Norwich ― Carissa Decelles enjoys going on nature hikes with her friends, but they mostly end up going to city parks or along manicured paths, because Decelles can’t get her motorized wheelchair into the woods.
But soon, the 31-year-old Willimantic resident, who works as a graphic designer at Miranda Creative in Norwich, will be able to invite her friends on a field and woods hike at the Cedar Wood Preserve on North Wawecus Hill Road in Norwich.
Avalonia Land Conservancy, Inc. will hold a grand opening and dedication ceremony at 10 a.m. Saturday at the new Cedar Wood Preserve, across from 183 North Wawecus Hill Road. The preserve is set to become one of the first trails in the conservancy’s holdings with handicapped accessible trails. The flat terrain of the former farm will accommodate about 1.5 miles of trails “amenable to accessibility modifications,” as Avalonia board member Elanah Sherman put it.
For decades, Sherman has been a staunch advocate for increasing accessibility across the state to buildings, playgrounds, parks and hiking trails. She met Decelles years ago in connection with those efforts as Decelles helped push for creation of a handicapped accessible playground in East Hartford.
Sherman wrote Avalonia’s “Accessibility for People with Disabilities Statement” on the conservancy’s website, which has photos of the construction of the Cedar Wood Preserve entrance beneath the statement.
“Cedar Wood appealed to me not only because of its accessibility potential, but because it is located in a designated distressed community,” Sherman said, “where conservation land trust properties are a rare presence.
Sherman stressed that the preserve is not officially handicapped accessible yet, because grassy paths are no considered accessible. Avalonia is seeking donations and funding for Improvements to the trails with layers of compact materials and grading to make them “smooth, stable, and slip-resistant,” Sherman said.
It could take years and cost several hundred thousand dollars. But the relatively level grass paths will be open soon.
Sherman invited Decelles Tuesday to traverse part of the Cedar Wood Preserve Tuesday in advance of Saturday’s dedication. Decelles will be one of the guest speakers at the ceremony to name Cedar Wood Preserve in honor of the former Cedar Wood Farm. Former owners John and Mary Polaski, who donated the 47 acres to Avalonia, and Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom will speak at the dedication event.
Decelles, Sherman and Avalonia past president Dennis Main went “open space strolling,” as Sherman put it, along part of the preserve on Tuesday.
“Look at the bluebird on the bluebird box,” Main yelled out, just a few minutes into their stroll. “It’s just been up for two days. You can’t get any better than that.”
Awash in color
Volunteers have erected six bluebird boxes along the preserve border at the edge of a large meadow. Earlier this year, volunteers removed invasive multiflora rose bushes, bittersweet and other undesirable growth. By the height of summer, the field was awash in color, with native goldenrod, ironweed and milkweed that grew on their own, Main said.
Main picked up and pried open a dried milkweed pod and blew on the feathery seed fibers, sending them wafting into the air around him.
The group next admired the 14.5-foot-tall wood-sided chimney swift tower that Main and a group of volunteers installed last week. The birds, which typically congregate in urban areas, nest in chimneys, clasping onto interior grooves. The tower has metal screens at the bottom to keep predators out and insulation to keep the interior cool. The birds have migrated south for the winter, so Avalonia volunteers and visiting birders will have to wait to see if the birds discover the new home in spring.
“This is nice,” Decelles said. “It has a real nature feel to it, really different than a path in a park. Just being in a field. I don’t get to be in fields very much.”
Decelles, who has spinal muscular atrophy, a type of muscular dystrophy, said she had to pay attention to dips and a few rocks in the mowed path but found the area fairly easy for her motorized chair to navigate, although her hands were chilled by the crisp November air Tuesday morning.
The parking lot on North Wawecus Hill Road has one wide space marked for handicapped vehicles. The space accommodated Decelles van, with a wide area to the right for her exit ramp. A rougher stone surface parking area has space for several other vehicles.
From there, Cedar Wood visitors will find a 50-foot-wide open area. Still under construction is a 120-foot-long boardwalk that will cross above a vernal pool.
The boardwalk will be level to the ground at both ends, accommodating wheelchairs and scooters, but for Tuesday’s tour and for Saturday’s dedication and tour, Avalonia received permission to use a temporary entrance on the neighbor’s property to enter the trail.
Cedar Wood will have four marked trails, red, blue, white and yellow. The future accessible trail is not specifically color coded, but markers at intervals will give visitors directions, Sherman said.
A large preserve map will be erected near the parking area that will show the trails.
Heading back from their tour, Tuesday’s group heard a loud croaking sound. Main said a raven has been making regular appearances, perching atop the antenna on a cell tower on the preserve. The three stopped for a moment for a look at the bird.
Main has posted a list of the 75 bird species Avalonia volunteers have seen or heard at Cedar Wood Preserve on the website, www.ebird.org.
Decelles looks forward to future visits to Cedar Wood Preserve with her 1-year-old chocolate Lab retriever mix, Ren, who is in training as a service dog.
Ren stayed in the van Tuesday but got in a quick sniff tour of the entrance area when Decelles opened the van to head back to work.
“This is just really nice,” she said.