Mar – Making Trails Happen

Published in The Hour Online – March 2013.


West Branch of the Saugatuck River, Devil's Den, Weston CTTrails are magical things. They transport us with relative ease from our everyday, built-upon world into nature. Relative ease, to be sure. There are trails that are grueling indeed, but even the roughest make the journey much, much easier than it would otherwise have been. Try hiking the woods without a trail. My youngest daughter and I were once forced to when a trail disappeared on us in the Adirondacks. One day I will tell that story in this column, but I can say now that we still remember the scratches. Even those of us who have felt the joy of finding a trail again after struggling through untrodden country too often take their existence for granted. We see them as features of the landscape, as natural as brooks, rocks and wildlife. And of course trails can be completely natural, nothing more than the impressions of repeated human or animal use. Mostly though our hiking trails must be built and maintained by people, and that was why I was at junction post 12 in the Devil’s Den today.

The hike from the parking area led across, and then back across, the West Branch of the Saugatuck. It is a young river here, not long into its short journey to the Saugatuck proper. Even on the quarter-mile stretch that the trail follows upstream, the West Branch gets noticeably younger, shrinking from a broad flow to something you could just about leap across. Somewhere between the two bridges it gains the waters of the Den’s Sap Brook. Sap Brook in turn is fed along its course by Ambler Brook. And here at post 12 it is the Ambler Trail that begins – my trail.

Gnarled pines on ledge at Devil's Den, Weston CTIt is mine because, five years ago, I adopted it, promising The Nature Conservancy that my family and I would patrol it now and then to check for encroaching undergrowth, fallen limbs and invading plant species. I chose Ambler because it is especially varied and attractive, passing over two fine vistas and through a precipitous gorge. You come to the first vista about 30 minutes from the parking area. It is a perfect resting place – an edge where the rock makes a comfortable bench and gnarled pines twist up and out in search of sun. Today the view was of the thawing swamp below. I lunched up here, and then hiked on over the second, east-facing, vista to Ambler Gorge, kicking branches off the trail here and there. The cliff on one side of the gorge is perpendicular, even projecting. Surely, if cougars are indeed returning to New England, they would like this place.

A year ago I worked on the fiddly, down-on-your-knees job of stapling chicken wire to the bridge in Ambler Gorge. The result is by no means esthetic but maybe prevents hikers sliding into boulder-strewn Ambler Brook. Nearby, on an earlier patrol, I pushed a dead raccoon off the trail. The Nature Conservancy relies on volunteers for this kind of dirty work, some 300 each year for the Den and adjacent conservation projects alone. Some are trail adopters. Others turn up for organized “work days”, when blazes are painted, drainage trenches dug, fallen trees removed, and Japanese Barberry spectacularly torched. (And Barberry, it turns out, may not only crowd out our native species. Recent research suggests it creates conditions that favor Lyme Disease-carrying deer ticks). “Each year, volunteers donate hundreds of hours towards a variety of activities that The Nature Conservancy simply could not conduct without their time and dedication,” says a Conservancy coordinator. And I could see today that TNC staff too had been wielding the chainsaw since my last visit. All this upkeep does not make the Den more beautiful. That is still nature’s job. We just keep it accessible.

From the end of the Ambler Trail at post 44 you can return to the parking area on a mile of wide path. But I decided to extend my hike up the Sap Brook and Hiltebeitel trails. Hiltebeitel runs along a ridge, and on it the wind was picking up as a nor’easter approached. I lay down on a cold ledge with my head on my pack and listened to the wind’s sounds – a rustling in the pine needles, a grinding from the rocky valleys below – and felt grateful for the magical trails that brought me here.

If you go …

Pent Road, Weston, parking area.
A little over 4 miles.
Two hours.
Trail maps available at parking area, and on TNC website. TNC HIGHLY RECOMMENDS THAT HIKERS CARRY A MAP. Hike followed posts 3-17-14-12-46-44-10-9-38-20-29-5-4-3.
Sturdy shoes, layers of  clothing, water, lunch.
Pets are not permitted in  the Den.

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