If you look at Fairfield County from the air (Google Earth will do, you don’t need a plane), it is clearly a wooded place, at least away from the cities and the highway development strung between them. Broad-leaved trees are to our landscape what corn is to Iowa, and sagebrush to Nevada. But trees do not equal forest, and most of our greenery is thinned out and fragmented by yards, roads, schools, stores, playing fields and the like. Nothing wrong with that. I live beside some of those patchy woods, and seen from the room where I write this column they are beautiful and could be endless (in the leafy season, you cannot tell that they end after 200 yards at most).
There are exceptions to Fairfield County’s fragmented woods. One consists of the Devil’s Den and Trout Brook Valley, shaped like a pair of lungs, one each side of Saugatuck Reservoir; another is in New Fairfield, west of Squantz Pond. I noticed this second area only last summer. I was holed up with a bad knee, browsing Google Earth (better than TV!). The satellite image showed the darker green of uninterrupted trees stretching west from Squantz. It was easy to discover that some of this was Pootatuck State Forest, but I was intrigued by the rest, an empty tract of wooded hill east of Route 37 and south of the state forest. Within the tract, according to another map, stood 1,178-foot Beaver Bog Mountain.
I looked for a preserve, state park, or other reason for these undeveloped woods, but could not find one, and let the matter rest. Then, this spring, a friend’s Facebook “like” put a post from Great Hollow Nature Preserve in front of me. At first, Great Hollow, a new preserve, did not solve my puzzle. It seemed to lie west of Route 37, outside the empty tract. Even so, it looked worth a visit. The photo gallery on its website showed a varied landscape and a charismatic cast of critters.
I began my Great Hollow visit with a chat with Chad Seewagen, its executive director. The preserve, explained Chad, once belonged to labor lawyer Walter Merritt (we were chatting in the Merritt House, its walls lined with Walter’s legal volumes). Before his death in 1968 Walter willed that his land be kept as a nature preserve, and used for educational and scientific purposes. Last year, a local philanthropist who shares Walter’s vision bought the property. And the property, I now learned, spans Route 37. The western portion is where the trails are; the eastern, track-less, covers a big chunk of my mystery parcel.
The western portion of Great Hollow is about 1.75 miles south to north, and never more than a half-mile wide. Its southern half, nearer the entrance and the Merritt House, is where most of the trails are. They are dotted with structures from the preserve’s past (barns from dairy farming days, and shelters from when the property hosted wilderness schools). The trails crisscross Quaker Brook, pass through small meadows and stands of conifer, and circle the wetland near Merritt House. The Orange Trail crosses briefly into New York’s Michael Ciaiola Conservation Area; and where it does so there is a series of small waterfalls, tinkling brightly even after a dry month. (Photos of my walks can be found at “McWilliams Takes a Hike” on Facebook.)
The Purple Trail climbs sharply into Great Hollow’s northern half. Past logging has left piles of debris and gaps in the canopy that paradoxically benefit both critters and hikers (the former with habitat, the latter with airy spaces). Five hundred feet above Quaker Brook, the trail enters undisturbed forest, descending eventually to Hardscrabble Road. I liked the peace and elevated feel of these woods, and the cooling breeze that blew faintly through them.
Chad had said that I’d probably meet John Foley as I hiked. John is Preserve Steward. But I didn’t run into him, and had resigned myself to leaving without a meeting when he walked up to my car. I was glad he did. John, it turned out, is a fount of knowledge and enthusiasm about all things nature and conservation in Great Hollow and the wider ecosystem that stretches from Pootatuck State Forest over to the Great Swamp in Putnam County, NY. I quizzed him about the forest east of Route 37. Beaver Bog Mountain, he thought, stood on private land, but he gave me directions to some isolated, unadvertised acres of Pootatuck State Forest. I set off to find them.
Did I find them? I found unmarked trails in hot, empty woods, but not the hill-bounded swamp I had seen on online maps at home. And since I did not have the tools – a decent topographical map at least – to conduct a proper exploration, I headed for the mapped parts of the Pootatuck forest and hiked through the swelling heat to views of Candlewood Lake. When you finish an outing, it is good to leave something to go back for. I have only made a start with Pootatuck and the Great Hollow, and not even that with the Great Swamp.
|IF YOU GO …|
|GREAT HOLLOW HIKE||POOTATUCK SF HIKE|
|PARKING||Preserve entrance, Route 37 at Haviland Hollow Road, New Fairfield.||North end of Pine Hill Road (right fork), New Fairfield.|
|DISTANCE||The preserve has about 6 mi of trails.||About a 2-mile roundtrip to scenic views of Squantz Pond from Blue trail.|
|DURATION||I explored for about 3 hours.||1.5 hours, with contemplation time.|
|MAP||Great Hollow website||CT DEEP website.|
|DOGS||Must be leashed at all times.||Keep on a leash.|