Published in The Hour Online – April 2013.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION AT END OF ARTICLE.
It was already warm at 9:30, and the sky above the parking area for the Undermountain Trail was perfect blue. Only a week before the afternoon temperature had struggled to reach 40 degrees. I looked at the gear in the back of my car, and decided to leave the gloves, fleece and rain pants behind. A memory of a previous spring climb into the Taconics made me clip my boot chains to my pack just in case. Undermountain is a side trail of the Appalachian Trail, rising 1,000 feet in two miles to meet it. The sun was bright in the bare woods as I climbed, and signs of spring abounded. Bursts of rapid tapping came from up in the trees. Was it woodpeckers hammering, or some throaty mating call? There was sweet birdsong too, and wild turkeys that bolted from me through the leaf litter. Where the trail met a branch of Brassie Brook I was grateful for cool shade in a stand of hemlocks.
I was planning to take the long route to the AT, turning off Undermountain onto Paradise Lane Trail. But first I had to find it. I had done so many times before, but this time a shiny new sign messed things up. It said Paradise Lane Trail began 0.1 miles farther on. So I walked on expecting to meet it after a few minutes. When it didn’t show, I turned back where there was a patch of snow in a shady hollow. I found Paradise Lane where it had always been, a weather-beaten sign pointing down it from a birch tree. It was just paces from the new sign, nowhere near 0.1 miles. Heeding signs can be a bad habit.
I took Paradise Lane because it is aptly named. After a short steep section it levels out all the way to the AT. There was a trunk-obstructed view downslope to lakes and hills in a blue haze. Uphill, tangles of branches pointed into a vivid sky. Beside the path was a glinting understory of mountain laurel leaves among the dense, lichen-splotched tree trunks. Snow patches became more numerous, and icy stretches of trail appeared where there was lasting shade. The hump of Bear Mountain, rising abruptly behind wetlands, showed white beneath its fur of woods. In another stand of conifers – 1,800 feet up on the Massachusetts line – the breeze was now deliciously cool. Here I met a group of five hikers coming the other way. They looked like an outing of an Ernest Hemingway Look-Alike Society, all gray beards and bellies. I asked one of them if they had been up Bear Mountain. They turned back, he said. Papa didn’t have chains.
I reached the AT in cold Sages Ravine, feeling smug for bringing chains for my boots. Then I recalled what comes before a fall, and started the ascent humbly. It would have been impossible without the chains. Trail and rocks were covered in soft ice. On the steepest clamber I worried less that I would slip than that the whole melting layer of ice would slide from the rock under my weight. Thoughts of spring vanished. Then, nearing the summit, light and warmth returned, and the snow slunk back into its patches. There is a monument on Bear Mountain — a huge, meticulously-stacked pile of rocks — and built into it a plaque. “THIS MONUMENT MARKS THE HIGHEST GROUND IN CONNECTICUT, 2,354 FEET ABOVE THE SEA.” But it’s not true. Connecticut’s highest point is a mile and a half away on the slopes of Mount Frissell. And the plaque exaggerates Bear Mountain by 38 feet too. They are century-old mistakes, and the views are still stunning. The woods had given way to krummholz trees stunted and deformed by freezing. The monument looks over the krummholz to mile upon mile of rounded, wooded mountain. Only east are there signs of cultivation and habitation.
The descent south was gradual and ice-free. The krummholz became woods again and views vanished. From Riga Junction you can return to the parking area on the Undermountain Trail, but I wanted to see more AT. I met Brassie Brook again. Nearby was a hikers’ shelter and a sturdy metal chest chained to a tree a “bear box” for keeping trail food from the bruins. A half-mile on I found the place I camped on my first AT backpacking trip – two days on the Connecticut section over a decade ago. Now, on the long walk down to Salisbury, I wondered what a “thru-hike” would be like, all 2,180 miles from Georgia to Maine. But that is another article.
If you go …
|PARKING||Undermountain Trail, CT Route 41, 3mi north Salisbury.|
|DISTANCE||12.5mi (6.7mi if return to parking via Undermountain Trail from Riga Junction).|
|DURATION||6hrs (3.5hrs for shorter route).|
|MAP AND ROUTE||Official AT trail map. Undermountain – Paradise Lane – A.T. to CT 41 – CT 41 back to parking area.|
|WHAT TO TAKE||Sturdy boots (and chains in early spring). Walking stick or poles. Layers of clothing. Water (0.5 gallon at least), food, sunscreen.|