Taking a Hike – Three Faces of the NRVT

Norwalk River Valley Trail

Bailey bridge over the Norwalk River at Wolfpit Rd, Wilton CT

May’s “Taking a Hike” column was published when Katie and I were away in the Smokies. It is available in The Hour as NRVT is taking shape nicely and on Hersam Acorn A&L as Three faces of the emerging Norwalk River Valley Trail.

The Norwalk River valley in southwest Connecticut is a densely-populated place; not Hong Kong-dense, but those of us who live here are more tightly packed in, I suspect, than even the CT average. We don’t usually think of the area as a river valley at all, talking instead of the “Route 7 Corridor” or similar. So it was nice to take a few outings recently with the river as the main reference point; from Long Island Sound to the young, swamp-fed stream by way of a tidal estuary. This is what May’s column is about.

February’s column – a winter hike up Mount Everett – is now available in full from the Taking a Hike tab (2014: “Feb – Mount Everett”) or by clicking here.

Trails and the Senior Prom

The most important event of the weekend was without doubt my middle daughter’s senior prom. It is, I am certain, already very adequately documented on Facebook. And since this is a blog about trails and escape, I am going to write about activities that took place either side of shuttling her from pre-prom to prom and then on to post-prom. It was National Trails Day on Saturday and Connecticut Trails Day Weekend as well.

Norwalk River Valley Trail Missing LinkOn Saturday morning we (that is Norwalk River Valley Trail volunteers) led the public along the new stretch of trail we hacked on May 4th. The public was four brave men and women undaunted by temperatures already over 80 at 10.00 in the morning, or by our warnings of loose riverbank, poison ivy and – possibly – wet feet. I was delighted that 75% of the party – fully three people – had turned up this morning after reading my article in The Hour about the May 4th work.

NRVT under Route 7 Norwalk CTI had worried about how people would react to our trail, but need not have. Once we passed the junk and urban art under the Route 7 bridges and clambered down to the river, everyone agreed what a great pity it is that this stretch of river has been inaccessible for so long. One member of the group remembered how, before the Army Corps of Engineers channeled the river after the floods of 1955, Norwalkers fished here for trout and skated on a riverside pond.

Deering Pond, Norwalk, NRVTWe emerged from the woods onto Riverside Avenue and waited an age for the lights to grant mere pedestrians a few seconds to jog across New Canaan Avenue. A passenger in a stopped SUV shouted over at us, “You on that hike up the river? Yeah! I saw the article in the paper.” We invited him to join us. “Uh, maybe next week.” Still, this further recognition gave the last, sweaty leg to Deering Pond  a pleasant glow for me.  The Silvermine and Norwalk rivers meet at Deering Pond and, despite the nearby highway and overhead power lines, it is an attractive place. It was inhabited by a wader that I took to be a white heron. I wish my camera was capable of a better picture.

On Sunday, a little tired from the shuttling and emotions of the prom, I went with my youngest to a work day at the Devil’s Den. It was hard labor. For two hours we dug, hacked and scraped away at hard ground to build water bars on the Den Trail. I hope they worked well today when the heavens opened.

May Article for The Hour

I have posted my May article for The Hour on the Taking a Hike page (and made February’s piece – about Cobble Mountain in Macedonia Brook State Park – available in full via the drop-down menu).

Volunteers arriving to blaze the Norwalk Valley River TrailMay’s article is not about a hike at all, but about hacking a thin trail through tangled riverside woods. It is the hope of the group that did the hacking that, eventually, our slim path will grow into beautiful bike and walking track, part of a grand Norwalk Valley River Trail. You can imagine it like that, a shady asphalt trail along the riverbank for Norwalkers to ride and stroll on. The riverbank is now unused – almost. I went back with two of the group today to hack back new growth, and our trail took us under highway bridges where discarded bottles, graffiti and a fire pit suggested that a popular trail may not be good news for everyone. Later we found two plastic chairs neatly arranged in a rudimentary riverside shelter of branches and boards.

Lions Head sign on Connecticut Appalachian TrailUrban trail, at least on the basis of “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”, is surely more important than wilderness trail. I had to drive 50 miles to get to another bit of trail work this month. It was admittedly nicer scenery up in Sharon. There another bunch of volunteers was ready to put in a shift. This crew were from the CT Chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club. Some, like me, were newbies. Others had clearly been doing this together for a long time. I joined the party that went to build a privy at Pine Swamp Brook lean-to. It wasn’t arduous work compared to blazing the NRVT. As somebody quipped, it was about passing tools to those who knew what they were doing. But when D2 and I pass that way in a few weeks (see previous post), I will direct her to “my” privy with great pride.

2013 Bike Walk Connecticut Summit

Norwalk Valley River Trail in Wilton CTOn Saturday I attended the Bike Walk Connecticut summit in New Haven. I was there, informally, on behalf of the Norwalk River Valley Trail. It was a beautiful morning, a real pity to be inside rather than biking or walking. Here’s an attempt at summary for those who were wiser.

Crowd – 100 or so, with baby-boomers predominating.

Subject – Bike Walk aims “to change the culture of transportation … to make bicycling and walking safe, feasible and attractive for a healthier, cleaner CT”. The event was more bike than walk. I suppose – aside from mountain bikers hurtling down a narrow trail, or slow-moving walkers hogging the lanes – the interests of the groups are generally in harmony.

Speakers – bike advocates and campaigners, public works engineers, planners and architects, trail enthusiasts. The stand-out speaker was Jeff Olson, author of The Third Mode: Towards a Green Society. Jeff’s company – Alta Planning & Design – did a planning study for the NRVT. Numerous “Finally made it to Yale!” jokes from the speakers.

Two stand-out stats that argue for more, better trails – 60% of Americans would like to make more trips without the car but are concerned about safety, and one third of Americans don’t drive (this includes under 16s).

My take-aways:

I learned a lot of new acronyms and vocabulary – CMAQ (Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program), MAP-21 (Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act), TIGER grants (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery), greenways, cue sheets and Complete Streets. I particularly liked Complete Streets, which are those designed for all users – walkers, bikers, drivers, and riders of public transit.

I began, barely, to understand how taxpayer dollars flow (in small quantities, it must be said) to alternative transportation projects.

Norwalk Valley River Trail near Merwin Meadows, Wilton CTI heard about a number of great trail projects, notably – the East Coast Greenway and the Western New England Greenway. They appeared, like the NRVT, to be works-in-progress, a cobbling together of existing routes with possible new construction. They will need the attributes of success identified by one speaker – stakeholder buy-in, shared benefit, credibility and – I suspect most important – persistence.

A final thought. Of all the things we could bequeath to the generations to come perhaps the greatest gift would be a choice about how to make a journey. As Jeff Olson joked, every home should be a trailhead! Impossible of course, but we could bring the trails a lot closer.

Norwalk River Valley Trail

Last week I attended the monthly meeting – my first – of the Norwalk River Valley Trail Regional Steering Committee. The trail is still more project than reality, but the vision is wonderful — “a 38 mile route (including loops) for cyclists, hikers and walkers from Calf Pasture Beach in Norwalk, north to Danbury.”

Inevitably I imagine first how it will work for me. I live near the proposed route, and salivate at the prospect of easy access to miles of trail. It will be like my boyhood, when a footpath began two houses down our street, and connected to a network of paths all over town and country.

When the NRVT is complete, I will be able to hike without getting into the car first. There will be local walks that are off-road. My daughters might be able to get places – the library, Starbucks, even the beach – on their bikes with less exposure to busy roads.

Day 32 - Clyde between M74 and Cambuslang

But the NRVT will be irresistible to other locals too. I already regularly bike a section of its route through Wilton and, judging by the number of riders, walkers, dog-walkers and runners that I need to steer around even now, demand for good, continuous trail will be high.

But what about visitors? Will they flock to the NRVT for recreation?

We have to be honest here. The Norwalk River valley is not the Shenandoah, nor even the Housatonic. When you chug up to Wilton from South Norwalk on the train, the last thing you think as you look out the window is “my, this is fine hiking country”.

But urban and suburban trails are valuable just because they are close to where people live, and accessible by public transport. Uninterrupted beauty is not essential. Not long ago, I hiked a trail like this – Scotland’s Clyde Walkway. It runs 40 miles up the River Clyde from Glasgow, a city of 600,000. The first 20 miles are mostly urban, even industrial. The picture above is pretty enough, but the M74 motorway was behind me and there were factories behind the trees.

My only problem with the Clyde Walkway had nothing to do with the scenery. My gripe was with the signage. Now, I have no objection to hiking without signposts or even blazes. But when you advertise a walkway or a trail – especially one in settled country – the public has a right to expect regular and consistent marking. It was not the case on the banks of the Clyde, but the NRVT seemed last week to have the matter well in hand.