The hiking community around here, like the black bears out in our wilder woods, mostly slumbers through the winter months. From December to the first warm day of spring, you hike alone, or share a hushed trail with a few kindred souls. Then, about when the leaves come out, it is as if everyone who loves trails and nature has emerged from their den, given themselves a brisk shake and scratch, and headed outdoors. The body temperature and heart rate of traildom has bounced back; and as a consequence, we outdoor nuts are suddenly spoiled for company and activities.
On Saturday May 10th, for example, I could have helped to clear a section of future Norwalk River Valley Trail by Riverside Avenue. Or, at exactly the same hour in Weston, the Devil’s Den was holding trail maintenance training. If I wasn’t tempted by either of those, it was also “Give a Day to the AT” at the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), up in Cornwall Bridge. I wanted to join all these goings-on. They were fun last time around. But, finally, I joined none. I needed the time to get ready for a backpacking trip with my eldest daughter.
Despite this early failure, I have still managed to join the awakening outdoor gang this spring, and even do my bit for trail maintenance. Here are the season’s highlights:
SCHAGHTICOKE MOUNTAIN: Early in May, I hiked the Appalachian Trail from Kent to Bulls Bridge, up and over mounts Algo and Schaghticoke. My company was Bert Schwarz, an AMC’er like me (and, it must be said of a man who was on Mount Washington this January, not a hibernator). Our AT outing was as near-perfect as any hike gets; a dry trail, a warm day, and frequent views over the Housatonic River and its lumpy surrounding hills. We had a purpose that day other than enjoying near-perfection. We wanted to get to know the lay of the land in order to lead an AMC hike along the same route later in the season. That hike is now slated for Sunday, June 29th. Let me know if you’d like to join us (there’s no need to be an AMC member). You can even get a taste of the hike on Facebook first – “McWilliams Takes a Hike”, Schaghticoke Mountain album.
AMBLER TRAIL: I once wrote in this column (“Volunteers make the trails happen”, March 2013) that the Ambler Trail at the Devil’s Den is mine; mine because I adopted it, promising The Nature Conservancy to keep it in good order in return. Now, TNC likes a spring report by June 1st, so on the afternoon of that very day (I may procrastinate, but I don’t miss deadlines) I went to the Den to do an “inventory walk”; that is, make a list of the work needed on my trail. The list became; (1) clip back encroaching undergrowth (a lot), (2) cut and remove obstructing timber (less), and (3) block off common wrong turns with branch piles (in two places). I didn’t actually do any work that Sunday afternoon, but went back a week later with saw and clippers. It was a hot, still, buggy evening, but it felt good to be laboring in the woods even so. And as I looked around me, I thought again that the Ambler Trail is the most beautiful in the Den, from its ledges fringed with Mountain Laurel to dark Ambler Gorge. And that, of course, is why I adopted it.
BABCOCK AND WESTFALL PRESERVES, GREENWICH: I had never put a boot to a Greenwich trail until a gentle walk in these preserves on Trails Day, June 7th. The walk was organized by The Greenwich Land Trust, and what drew me to it was the advertised presence of naturalists. Usually, I enjoy the outdoors as a big picture, overlooking the details that make up the landscape. In Greenwich that warm morning, GLT’s Steve Conaway gave out some great details. I liked learning that skunk cabbage makes heat to melt its way through icy, early-season ground. I liked seeing a black birch that seemed to stand on four legs, and learning how this species likes to grow from a fallen log. When the log rots away, the base of the birch is left with gaping holes. Most of all, though, I liked the news that, this fall, the GLT hopes to plant 350 blight-resistant American chestnut seedlings. There may be nobody alive in our area who remembers chestnut-filled woods, but wouldn’t it be good if we could replace even a fraction of the billions of lost trees?
NEWMAN-POSES PRESERVE, WESTPORT: This preserve of 39 acres occupies land in part donated by the late Paul Newman, and now managed by the Aspetuck Land Trust. As much as I like Mr. Newman’s movies – Nobody’s Fool is a stand-out – that is not why I joined a hike here on June 12th. I joined, once again, because the hike would be led by an expert, in this case Milan Bull of the Connecticut Audubon Society. I will not even attempt to do justice to Mr. Bull’s talk on the lives and songs of the birds that live on this patch by the Aspetuck River. What stuck with me concerned habitat. About 60% of our state is woods, trees that have sprouted since Connecticut farmers started to abandon their fields 150 years ago. Now, I love our hardwood forests, but they can overwhelm other habitats that are important to wildlife – meadows, scrub, stands of cedar. Newman-Poses is being thoughtfully managed by the ALT to maintain diversity. It showed. In the shortest of walks, we took in dark woods, a well-lit meadow, riverbank and wetlands. Not bad for 39 acres.