I had hoped to write this column without using the S-word. And as I look out my window on April 7th, most of the stuff has indeed gone from my yard, all but a few grubby little mounds, the remnants of the pristine mountains we built by shoveling. Too late for the column, I’m afraid. I can only promise that, as you read on, the actor named Snow will leave center stage. My subject looks forward to the warmer months. Early spring offers opportunities to hike with a comforting excuse, that what you are really doing is making the trails shipshape for peak hiking season.
THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL IN CONNECTICUT. Sometime in mid-March, Jim Liptack announced a “survey hike” for Saturday, March 28th. It would cover the Appalachian Trail from West Cornwall Road to near Falls Village, checking out how the trail had survived the winter. Jim is a science teacher at Wilton High School and an A.T. trail work leader. Eighteen months ago I joined a group that toiled under his guidance to build rock steps up a steep section of A.T. near Kent. I remember a lot of boulder-prying and boulder-rolling. The survey hike, announced through the Appalachian Mountain Club, sounded white-collar by comparison. A few days ahead of time, Jim’s advice was to come prepared for snow lingering on north-facing sections of trail. I put my microspikes in the car.
Sure enough, March 28th dawned cold and gray, with snow showers forecast for northwest Connecticut. The weather must have scared off some of Jim’s pledged volunteers, as ten minutes after the appointed meeting time there were just four of us standing in the appointed meeting place – Jim, Ray Bracone, Mindy, and myself. Mindy was good-looking and charming, but didn’t seem cut out for trail work. Still, she was up for the hike, standing excitedly on all four paws in the back of the car as we rode to the trailhead.
We started in the bottom of a steep valley, where the sun had made little progress with the snow. But climbing higher, through the shoulder-wide rock cleft called Roger’s Ramp, it looked as if we might soon shed our microspikes. Then, on the hilltops, and even more in the saddle where Pine Swamp Brook shelter stands, it became clear that the snow was lingering in quantity, and not just on north-facing slopes. We pushed on, removing blowdowns and smaller debris from the trail here and there. We even managed to clean out the one water bar not still hidden by winter.
At the shelter, we got down to more serious work. Jim took notes about the condition of the structure (porcupine-gnawed boards springs to mind). Ray and I took half-burned logs from the (illegal) fire site in front of the shelter, and tossed them far into the woods. I checked out the privy that I had helped to build two years ago. It had been painted since then – forest green with a yellow crescent moon on the door. Someone had dangled a crushed Foster’s can from a beam of the shelter. Maybe there was a purpose behind it, but I cut it down and we pushed on.
The snow made for hard going, harder in some spots than others. On the sharp, north-facing descent to Sharon Mountain Road, the snow was virgin and knee-deep. We “postholed”; that is, our legs fell unpredictably and knee-jarringly through the crust to create the kind of hole you would put a fencepost in. Then, postholing a little less, we climbed Mount Easter – at 1,391 feet the highest point of our day – and slowly descended to Sharon Mountain campsite. Hiking quickly creates familiarity, and even though I knew neither Jim nor Ray well, our lunch at the campsite was a comfortable gathering. We sat on rocks and trunks as a light snow fell, found stuff to talk about, and vied for Mindy’s attention with hand-outs of trail mix and peanuts.
THE DEVIL’S DEN, WESTON: Five days later, I went to the Devil’s Den soon after sunrise; and sunrise brought not a gray chill, but treetops set to glowing, and the rising sun reflected in the West Branch of the Saugatuck. There was only remnant snow and ice on very sheltered stretches of trail. I had come to do another survey hike, this time of the Ambler Trail, which I have adopted from The Nature Conservancy. I did much the same stuff that I had done with Jim and Ray – sawed a fallen branch that had settled across the trail at head height, kicked lesser limbs into the woods, made notes of work I would do later. But mostly I just enjoyed being out as skunk cabbage was emerging from the softening ground. Half-frozen swamps reflected the woods and bright sky. Ambler Brook was full of rambunctious meltwater – the sound of spring.
|If you go …|
|APPALACHIAN TRAIL||AMBLER TRAIL|
|PARKING||SOUTH: Where A.T. crosses West Cornwall Rd, Sharon (limited space). NORTH: hiker parking at junction routes 7 and 112, 1.5 mi south Falls Village)||Devil’s Den Pent Rd, Weston, parking area.|
|DISTANCE||6.7 Mi.||Approximately 3.0 mi.|
|DURATION||Close to 6 hrs with trail work and snowy conditions||1.5 hrs.|
|MAP AND ROUTE||Official A.T. MA-CT map (Map 3 – Tom Leonard Shelter in MA to Cornwall Bridge, CT). We hiked south to north.||Trail maps available from TNC website. TNC HIGHLY RECOMMENDS THAT HIKERS CARRY A MAP. My hike followed the Pent, McDougal West, Saugatuck, Ambler, Den and Pent Trails.|