A Fall Foliage Ramble in Connecticut’s Northeast Corner

Bigelow Brook, Union, CT

Bigelow Brook in the Yale Forest in Union today, with fall foliage at its peak in northeastern CT. Click to enlarge.

October 15, 2015
At Eastford, CT

So magnificent is the autumn foliage spectacle in New England that writers have struggled for centuries to capture its essence in words.
The brilliant leaf colors of October are a kind of eastern equivalent to the Grand Canyon, another well-documented challenge for writers. To be sure, the fall color in Connecticut is ephemeral, albeit annual, lasting only a matter of weeks, while the Grand Canyon is a rock-solid, enduring expression of the centuries.
But each is a grand spectacle in its own way.
Of the Grand Canyon, the great naturalist and author John Muir, a master of descriptive prose, wrote in 1902 that “it is impossible to conceive what the canon is, or what impression it makes, from descriptions or pictures, however good.”

Sugar maples are the quintessential New England fall foliage tree with leaves of yellow, orange and red. These trees grace a home and barn on Route 171 in Eastward. Click to enlarge.

Sugar maples are the quintessential New England fall foliage tree with leaves of yellow, orange and red. These trees grace a home and barn on Route 171 in Eastford, CT. Click to enlarge.

Henry David Thoreau, one of the towering figures of American literature, and another of the great descriptive nature writers, confided to his journal on an October day in the mid-19th Century that the southern New England fall color was so rich in hues as to be exasperating. “How often we find ourselves using ineffectually words which merely indicate faintly our good intentions, giving them in our despair a terminal twist toward our mark – such as reddish, yellowish, purplish, etc. We cannot make a hue of words, for they are not to be compounded like colors.. . .”

Birches and hickories bring a range of yellow hues to the autumn fall foliage display, as does this black birch in the Yale Forest in Union, as seen today. Click to enlarge.

Birches and hickories bring a range of yellow hues to the autumn fall foliage display, as does this black birch in the Yale Forest in Union, as seen today. Click to enlarge.

There is a lesson here. Enjoy the many literary descriptions of the fall color that we have, many of them evocative, even eloquent. Enjoy the colorful photos in the magazines and newspapers, too. But – always – get outdoors and take in the color for yourself. There is nothing like the real thing.

With that said, I headed out to the hills of northeastern Connecticut this morning to hike and poke around in what are some of the most rural towns in the state. The foliage color was terrific, at its peak, as it is these days in northern Litchfield County in the northwest corner.
Peak foliage color in much of the central part of the state is due within the next four or five days. The coast, as always, will be a bit later.
I hiked the morning in the Yale Forest on a day with a clear, deep blue sky, ideal for left peeping with the sun practically igniting the woodlands with color. The birch and hickory leaves are almost every shade of yellow, the red maples are brilliant scarlet and fluttering to the ground everywhere, the ashes have already turned that purplish-bluish color that is such a nice addition to the woodland mosaic. The sugar maples, the quintessential fall foliage tree of New England with leaves that range from deep red to bright orange to yellow and often a mix of all three, are exploding with color.
The spectacle won’t last. Don’t miss it.

The September 27, 2015, Total Eclipse of the Moon

Sept. 28, 2015

At Farmington, CT.

Well, you have a once in a generation celestial event, especially one that comes at a comfortable time – late evening – and you better not miss it. Last night’s total eclipse of a “supermoon” may not, from my perspective anyway, have been as spectacular as some of the media predictions, but it nonetheless was pretty cool. Maybe not as red as they were saying, maybe not quite as bright as I expected. But cool.

The Super Harvest Blood Moon as seen from Farmington, CT. Click to enlarge.

The Super Harvest Blood Moon as seen from Farmington, CT. Click to enlarge.

What we had was a harvest moon coming at a time when the moon is closest to Earth, making it the so-called supermoon. Because the moon during such an eclipse turns a reddish color, it also is known as a blood moon. So, we had a Super Harvest Blood Moon. The last one came in 1982. The next one won’t come until 2033.

I very much wanted to get a great photo. I got a so-so photo. Drove down to Town Farm Road in Farmington and set up my tripod next to the Polo Grounds property, a wide-open expanse with unobstructed views of the sky. The moon was fairly high in the sky by 10 p.m. and already mostly eclipsed. By the time of the total eclipse minutes later, I found it hard to even get the moon in the viewfinder. In 20 minutes of fumbling around I managed to get but one passable image.

But the important thing was, I saw it.

Whoops! Website Issues!

September 5, 2015

At Farmington, CT

Hi all. Just want everyone to know that apparently due to a major upgrade in a server and an update of my site platform, everything I have posted or revised on this website since April, 2010, is suddenly missing. The organization that manages my site is working diligently to correct this unexpected glitch, and already has made some progress. But so far, many dozens of blog entries over the past 5 years are gone, as are dozens of photos. I am hoping they can restore as many of the missing posts as possible.

Some old posts from the early days of this site can still be found below.

An Ice Fishing Primer

January 14, 2015

The January cold has set in, the ice on lakes and rivers thicker by the day. The ice fishing season is here.

For those unfamiliar with ice fishing, for those who think it is crazy to stand in the cold waiting for a fish to bite, its aficionados will tell you the sport has considerable appeal.

Katherine Beauchene caught a nice chain pickerel at the 2014 Burr Pond State Park fishing derby in Torrington, sponsored by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. The free event, to be held again this year on Feb. 7, attracted more than 700 people. Photo courtesy of Mike Beauchene. Click to enlarge.

Especially on a mild January or February day, with no wind and a temperature of say, 30, and the sun shining, it can be magical on the ice.

“I love to be out there,” said Mike Beauchene, a supervising fisheries biologist with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “It feels good to be out and getting that dose of vitamin D. It gets you out of the house and gives you the benefits of being outdoors.”

Beauchene’s agency hosts free ice fishing classes throughout the state during January, with experts explaining what equipment is needed and how to fish through the ice.

The agency also sponsors two ice fishing derbies for families, free, with all equipment and bait provided. The first will be held at Patriots Park in Coventry Jan. 31, the second at Burr Pond State Park in Torrington.

Last year some 700 to 800 people showed up for the derby at Burr Pond on a mild, sunny day. “People can just show up, get a little tutorial, start fishing and hopefully be successful,” Beauchene said. “The big part is they get out and get to enjoy a little of the fresh air Connecticut offers.”

My story on ice fishing in Connecticut appears today on CTNOW.com. Here is the link: http://www.ctnow.com/family/hc-winter-fishing-connecticut-0115-20150115-story.html

Considerable information on fishing regulations and events is available through the DEEP website. On the left rail choose Learn to Fish for information on ice fishing classes throughout the state in coming weeks, and information on the two fishing derbies. On the right rail, under Featured Links, choose Angler’s Guide for all regulations covering fishing in Connecticut including ice fishing.

A Winter Walk in Middletown

December 16, 2014

A poignant gravestone inscription in the historic Riverside Cemetery in Middletown. Click to enlarge.

Mindful that we need exercise even in the oh-so-busy month of December, consider a winter walk among the holiday decorations and the historic sites and buildings in downtown Middletown.

The Middlesex County Historical Society makes it easy to get a sense of the city’s history with a Middletown Heritage Trail brochure highlighting 20 notable sites, some of them right on the city’s mile-long Main Street, others within a few blocks of Main.

Middletown is one of the oldest cities in the state, with a rich history well worth a morning or afternoon of sidewalk sauntering. Its booming maritime economy in the late 18th Century made it Connecticut’s most populous community at the time.

With the downtown shops decorated the holidays, a couple of restaurants on every block, and historic sites aplenty, December is a good month for a long stroll that gets you out of the house and into the crisp winter air. The weather in coming days should be ideal, with temperatures into the high 30s or 40s.

Don’t miss the Riverside Cemetery, cared for by the Middletown Old Burying Ground Association. It is the city’s oldest graveyard, the resting place for many early residents of the community.
You’ll need to borrow the key to the cemetery gate, available nearby at the fire station at 533 Main St. The cemetery itself is behind the well-known O’Rourke’s Diner.

Many of the markers convey poignant messages from centuries gone by. “Here lies one dead which in her life was my loveing (sic) pious wife. Abigail Harris died May the 22, 1723.”

There are many other sites to see, including General Mansfield House and a Civil War Monument at the other end of Main Street. Take the time to walk over to the Connecticut River, only a couple of blocks from Main. My column describing in more detail a history walk in downtown Middletown appears today in The Hartford Courant.

A Good Day in the Great Meadows

December 15, 2014

Fellow Capitol Bird Club members Bob Capers, Steve Kotchko and Alan Ponanski participating in the National Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count yesterday. Click to enlarge.

A mild day in Connecticut yesterday as the National Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count was conducted in the Hartford area. It was my 30th year participating in the count, in its 115th year this year.

The event is conducted throughout North America, this year from Dec. 14 to Jan. 3, in about 2,300 defined count areas, which are 15-mile-wide circles. The Hartford-area count extends 7.5 miles in all directions from the Old State House in Hartford, and includes all or parts of many Hartford suburbs.

I’ve been part of the crew monitoring the Great Meadows in Wethersfield, along the Connecticut River, all these years, the past 28 as part of the Capitol Bird Club, a small bird club made up mostly of Connecticut journalists. Yesterday, I participated with fellow club members Steve Kotchko, Bob Capers and Alan Polanski. Steve is one of the regional captains in the Hartford Count.

A brown creeper in Wethersfield. Photo by Steve Kotchko. Click to enlarge.

We had a good year, identifying 42 species, up from 36 last year when the count fell on a snowy day. Among the highlights were a peregrine falcon, a brown creeper, and a winter wren, species we do not see every year on the count.

Information gathered in the Christmas count helps keep tabs on long-term changes in bird populations both in the Hartford area, and throughout North America.

Here is a list of species we saw:
Goldfinch, House Sparrow, Downy Woodpecker, Mourning Dove, House Finch, Chickadee, Starling, Crow, Cardinal, Junco, White-throated Sparrow, Carolina Wren, Blue Jay, Robin, Hermit Thrush, Canada Goose, Tree Sparrow, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Winter Wren, Red-tailed Hawk, White-breasted Nuthatch, Titmouse, Mallard, Ring-billed Gull, Rock Pigeon, Song Sparrow, Grackle, Flicker, Red-winged Blackbird, Peregrine Falcon, Kingfisher, Herring Gull, Black Duck, Great Blue Heron, Mute Swan, Hooded Merganser, Brown Creeper, Great Black-backed Gull, Bald Eagle, Cowbird, Common Merganser, Hairy Woodpecker.

The Lifeblood of the Landscape

July 23, 2014

I like to say that rivers are the lifeblood of the landscape.

Here in Connecticut, as in so much of the developed world, we haven’t always treated them well, lifeblood or not.

The Farmington River is among many in Connecticut that were burdened with pollution into the 1960s. With a major cleanup effort, the river by the mid-1970s was far cleaner. Today it is an enormously popular recreational river, heavily used by canoeists, kayakers, tubers, and anglers. Click to enlarge.

We have fouled them with human and industrial wastes. We have deforested their watersheds, with huge impacts as sediments were washed from cleared land. We constructed dams on practically every brook, stream and river of any size in Connecticut – literally thousands of them – choking them. We’ve introduced so many fish species into Connecticut waters that stream fauna is forever changed, often for the worse.

I’ve written a longish piece for The Hartford Courant that takes a look at the history of rivers in Connecticut. Beginning in the late 1960s we began to clean up our rivers, with substantial success in reducing sewage and industrial pollution. Many rivers once filthy are now clean enough for swimming, fishing and boating.

But big problems remain, including runoff pollution  from streets, driveways and parking lots.
Here is a link to the story: http://www.courant.com/news/connecticut/courant-250/moments-in-history/hc-250-rivers-connecticut-20140719,0,7527600.story

Hiking and Yoga is a Great Combination

May 15, 2014

Among the 258 events scheduled statewide for National Trails Day weekend in Connecticut June 7 and 8 is a hike combined with yoga in the nearly 800-acre Penwood State Park in Bloomfield.

A hiker does yoga’s tree pose from the Cedar Ridge Lookout in Penwood State Park, Bloomfield. Click to enlarge.

We’ll hike the yellow-blazed trail along the northern reach of the Talcott Mountain Range to the Cedar Ridge Lookout and back, about 3 miles round-trip over moderate terrain. Expect great views of the Farmington Valley to the west and south from the lookout. Wildflowers, abundant bird life and a rich mix of tree species add to the appeal of this trail.

At the trailhead, before the hiking begins, Leslie Gordon, co-owner of the Be Yoga studio in Avon, will lead hikers through a brief series of warm-up yoga poses. After the hike, participants will travel the short distance to Leslie’s studio, where she will lead a 45-minute session of poses that will gently stretch and rejuvenate muscles worked while hiking. No yoga experience is required.

The hike and yoga are free, but the outing is limited to 20 people. It is not too early to sign up. Similar hikes the past two years have filled up. For questions or to register, contact hike leader Steve Grant at steve@thestevegrantwebsite.com or 203-733-0079. Or, contact yoga leader Leslie Gordon at leslie@beyogainavon.com or 860-930-1311.

This hike also is open to families participating in the Great Park Pursuit program sponsored by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. Families can document their participation by taking a photograph with a Great Park Pursuit sign that will be available at the hike trailhead.

Hikers will meet at the Penwood State Park entrance parking lot on the north side of Route 185 at 8 a.m. Sunday, June 8. Rain cancels. No dogs. Pre-registration is required. We expect the event to end by noon.

The Wildflowers of May

Wild ginger, Barkhamsted, CT. Click to enlarge.

Wild ginger, Barkhamsted, CT. Click to enlarge.

May 8, 2014

Wild ginger is an interesting wildflower that blooms in May in Connecticut woodlands. The flower is almost secretive, blossoming at ground level and hidden by two heart-shaped leaves.
On a recent day, I hiked part of the Henry Buck Trail in American Legion State Forest in Barkhamsted with Eleanor “Sam” Saulys, a longtime board member of the Connecticut Botanical Society and a wildflower identification expert. The Buck Trail is a footpath that Saulys and many others think may be the single best spot in Connecticut to see some of the wildflowers that emerge in May.

“It is a wonderful display of plants,” she said. “Everything that you want to see can easily be seen within 500 feet of the road. You don’t need to put on your hiking boots or anything. It is a well worn trail.”

Already in bloom this day were purple trillium, with striking dark purple petals, and Dutchman’s breeches, a diminutive plant with dangling white flowers that, in fact, look like breeches or pantaloons. Also blooming was wild ginger – a small, mysterious plant with its three-lobed flower literally at ground level, sheltered from above by two bright, light- to medium-green, heart-shaped leaves. The flower is easily overlooked, but worth searching out – look for the distinctive leaves, then find the flower.

Dutchman’s breeches is in bloom in Connecticut woodlands right now. The flowers of this diminutive plant suggest old-fashioned breeches or pantaloons. Click to enlarge.

The wildflowers, of course, are part of the rhythm of the seasons, each species with its bloom time, some emerging even in March, others lingering into November, each with its ecological niche, each brightening the landscape for a few days or weeks.

After a long, cold winter, a wildflower walk on a mild day in mid- to late-May is especially pleasant. That many songbirds will be migrating through at the same time adds a woodland chorus to your outing.

My outdoors column appears in tomorrow’s editions of The Hartford Courant, with suggestions from Saulys on some great places to view wildflowers in coming weeks.

Check the Connecticut Botanical Society website for a list of their scheduled outings, open to newcomers and novice wildflower enthusiasts. www.ct-botanical-society.org.

A Fall Foliage Hike with Yoga

October 9, 2013

Asters are among the common Connecticut woodland wildflowers that bloom in early fall. Click to enlarge.

Yoga teacher Leslie Gordon, co-owner of the Be.Yoga studio in Avon, and I will host a fall foliage hike followed by yoga on Monday, Columbus Day, beginning at 8 a.m. at Penwood State Park on the Bloomfield-Simsbury line. We’ll follow the yellow-blazed trail from the state park parking area on the north side of Route 185, hiking a total of slightly more than 3 miles.

The weather forecast calls for a dry, crisp fall day, perfect for hiking. From the Metacomet Ridge hikers can expect sweeping views of the Farmington Valley and brilliant fall foliage color.

We’ll gather at the parking lot at 8 a.m. After the hike, the group will travel the short distance to the elegant Be.Yoga studio, 17 West Main St., Avon, where Leslie will lead the group in soothing yoga postures for legs, feet and hips. We expect to finish by noon. Pre-registation is required.

Detailed information on what to bring will be sent once you register. Cost is $17 per person, or use your Be-Yoga class card.

Check the Be.Yoga website to register and for information on Leslie and her studio. A state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection map of Penwood State Park includes the yellow-blazed trail and shows the location of the parking area off Route 185.

Critical Time for Connecticut Forest

October 6, 2013

On the one hand Connecticut forests good: lush and leafy. They may in fact be as robustly wooded and healthy as they have been since the beginning of the 19th Century. The fall foliage color should be great.

The Asian long horned beetle is an invasive pest species already identified in New York and Massachusetts that can do enormous damage to Connecticut forests if it became established. Photo courtesy of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station. Click to enlarge.

On the other hand, development, an onslaught of new invasive insect species and climate change seriously threaten their health and viability in the immediate future.

“Connecticut forests in the latter part of the last century and now are in about as good shape as they have been in two centuries,” said David R. Foster, director of Harvard University’s Harvard Forest in Petersham, Ma., and chairman of the board of Highstead, a forest conservation and education organization based in Redding.

But the state’s forests “are starting to be whittled away. That is the other piece of it,” he said. “They are in great shape, but we have to do something to hang on to them.”

It is a critical time for Connecticut forests, and these woodlands are environmentally and aesthetically invaluable.

“Forests lend beauty and character to the New England landscape where they play a vital role in local industry, as habitat, and as a source of natural infrastructure that cleans our water and air,” Foster said.

Connecticut forests continue to be carved up into smaller blocks of trees to make way for roads, businesses and homes, with major implications for forest health and wildlife habitat. Development pressures eased with the crash of the economy late in 2008, but the conservation community expects another surge of development as the economy rebounds.

It was only a decade ago that researchers identified a significant and troubling trend with Connecticut forests.

Prior to European settlement, what is now Connecticut was heavily forested. But by the mid-19th Century, practically all of the state was cleared for farming, leaving a vast, almost-treeless landscape. As larger scale farming developed to the west, Connecticut farming went into a steep decline after about 1850, and thousands of acres of land were left to revert to forest.

That reforestation continued until about 10 years, leaving Connecticut about 60 percent wooded. But now the total acreage of forests in the state is in decline once again. My story on the condition of Connecticut forests and the threats they face can be found today on the front page of The Hartford Courant, with photos and graphics.

An Outer Banks Outing

July 29, 2013
At Nags Head, N. C.

Indian blanket in bloom, Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. Click to enlarge.

Exploring the Outer Banks, I walked the North Pond Wildlife  Trail in the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge this morning just to get a feel for the refuge. Plenty of birds to be seen, including great egret, boat-tailed grackle, rusty and red-winged blackbirds, laughing gulls, terns, a probable tri-colored heron, catbirds and a yellowlegs, a bird that I am guessing has already returned from the far north to winter in the south. I am not sure, because the bird was a good distance away, but I think it was a greater yellowlegs.

The boat-tailed grackle likes to be near water. Click to enlarge.

Pea Island NWR extends from Oregon Inlet south to the town of Rodanthe, incorporating all of the land between the Sound and the ocean for 12 miles. The 5,834-acre refuge includes ocean beach, barrier dunes, salt marshes, fresh and salt ponds, and tidal creeks.

I had not realized until I got here that this refuge is a highly regarded birding destination, with more than 365 species seen. Among the possible sightings are black skimmer and black-necked stilts. I’d like to get some nice bird photos here this week.

I’ll need to revisit tomorrow. There is a lot more to see here, and in the adjoining Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

Seeing City Sites Sustainably

July 1, 2010

It is not a bike race. It is a bike ride. It is not a foot race. It is a walk.

Cyclists take a break during the 2007 Discover Hartford Bicycle Tour that attracted more than 1,200 participants

Actually, organizers say it is: “an anti-sprawl, pro-fun, pro-sustainable-city, anti-pollution, anti-couch potato, pro-bicycle, pro-pedestrian event.”

The 2010 Discover Hartford Bicycle & Walking Tour, the third in recent years, will be held Saturday, September 11, starting and ending in Bushnell Park. The first one attracted more than 1,200 riders.

Sponsored by Bike Walk Connecticut, formerly the Central Connecticut Bicycle Alliance, the tour is just that – a rolling tour of Hartford neighborhoods, historic sites, parks and riverfront. There is a 10-mile bicycle tour, a 25-mile bicycle tour and, new this year, a tour that includes a spur to the city’s Batterson Park, which will total about 40 miles.

Walkers will have a choice of two walks of about 1 mile or 1.5 mile each offered at two different times.

Check-in begins at 7 a.m., and the tour starts at 9:15 a.m. The registration fee varies: Under 18 years old, $15. Early bird registration, on or before August 9, is $25 for Bike Walk Connecticut members and $35 for non-members. From Aug. 10 to Sept. 9, registration is $30 for members, $40 for non-members. Anyone registering the day of the event pays $45.

Walking tour registration is $20 on or before Aug. 9, $25 after. On-line registration is available at www.hartfordbiketour.org. Printable mail-in forms also are available at the site. Brochures and forms will be available by mid-month at many Connecticut bicycle shops.

A tour t-shirt and route map are included with registration. Free snack bars and water will be available at stops along the routes. Crews also will be available at sites along the tour to assist cyclists with mechanical problems, though organizers suggest bringing your own materials for tire repair.

Visit www.hartfordbiketour.org for more information.

Tomato Crops at Risk Again

June 23, 2010

Bad news for vegetable gardeners and farmers. Late blight, a plant disease which spread rapidly throughout the Northeast last year and destroyed tomato and potato plants by the thousands, has been confirmed again this year in Connecticut.

Sharon M. Douglas, head of the Department of Plant Pathology and Ecology at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven, said the blight was confirmed in recent days on tomato plants in New Haven County.

Late blight damage to a tomato

Gardeners tending plots in the Kolp Community Garden in Farmington also suspected the blight had reappeared, but a station scientist checked today and found no evidence of the pathogen.

Late blight is caused by a fungus-like organism that appears as olive-brown to black blotches on leaves and stems. Tomatoes develop brown or black lesions. Entire fields of tomatoes or potatoes can be rapidly infected and killed.

Because the potential for a widespread outbreak in Connecticut is again possible, Douglas said “all tomato and potato plants should be considered at risk.”

Farmers and gardeners must be aggressive in dealing with the blight, she said. Tomato and potato plants should be inspected often. Any plants with symptoms should be immediately removed and placed in a plastic bag to avoid spreading the blight. Affected plants should never be composted.

Avoid overhead watering, which can spread the blight, and stake and mulch plants if possible. Fungicide sprays also may be necessary, she said. Organic fungicides such as copper are one option.

Douglas said the massive outbreak last year was initiated by the sale of infected tomato transplants from chain stores throughout the Northeast. Once planted, a long period of wet, cool weather from May into July provided ideal conditions for the blight to flourish.

Because some infested plant material could overwinter, the potential for the disease to affect plants again this year was considered high.

Late blight is infamous as the pathogen associated with the Irish potato famine of the 19th Century.

An excellent fact sheet on late blight is available from the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station.

Martha on the Mountain II

June 21, 2010
At Litchfield, Ct.

Martha Weik called a few days ago. Martha is the woman I met atop Mohawk Mountain on a cool morning in late April. (See “Martha on the Mountain,” April 30) She had made a hiking stick that she wanted to give me. Could we meet? Of course. We met in Litchfield and talked for an hour over coffee, much longer than our first meeting two months ago.

A detail photo of the hiking staff made by Martha Weik

Martha, 82, talked about her family, what her children were doing in their careers, all the interests that keep her busy. I told her about my family, what my young adult kids were up to in their fledgling careers. We got to know each other better. There was almost no talk of politics; in fact, almost no talk of anything topical in the newsy sense. We talked a lot about place, about Connecticut, especially Connecticut over the decades. She is one of those people, a kindred spirit, who loves the history and traditions of the state, who is happy to recall long ago life and landscapes, as you might expect from someone who can trace her lineage to the Mayflower. Did I know where Swift’s Bridge used to be on the Housatonic River in Kent? Yes, I stopped there in my canoe twice, though the bridge was long gone when I went by. Well, she swam there as a child, when there still was a Swift’s Bridge. Did I remember what Deer Island on Bantam Lake used to be like, when the cows roamed there? No, I couldn’t remember the cows, but I remember a quieter Bantam Lake of many years ago. We talked of rivers, mountains, and trails. The hour flew by.

All the while my new walking stick rested against our table. She had taken 7 or 8 newly made hiking staffs from her car and given me a choice. Martha takes saplings, whittles them into shape and, using a wood-burning tool, decorates them, often with whimsical objects or creatures. The walking stick was, she said, a thank you for the words I had written about her. I picked the stick upon which she had etched “Connecticut,” along with images of a fox, a wildflower and the street-side clock that can be seen along Route 44 in Norfolk, one of Connecticut’s special places. Atop the stick Martha etched her initials, and the year. There were decorative touches top to bottom, and a rawhide strap on the handle. This was folk art meant to be used. Next hike it goes into service.

I told her I wanted to write something in this journal about my new walking stick. She wanted to be sure I knew she did not give me a stick to get publicity. I already knew Martha well enough – knew this in our first brief meeting, really – to know that publicity never entered her mind. She made me a walking stick because she is the Martha I met on the Mountain; an exemplar of the best New England traditions.

A Brook, Brookies, and the Laurel

June 4, 2010

Like just about everything else in the plant world this spring, the mountain laurel is blooming early, perhaps a week early. The delicate, cup-like blooms, white or pink, are just emerging and won’t peak for days, but the shrubs already are showy enough to grab your attention. I know this because I bushwhacked my way through a large colony of laurel Wednesday in the hills of northwestern Connecticut.

Laurel can be dense, and you don’t want to work your way through it any more than necessary. I wasn’t following a trail, and I wasn’t lost, but I made my way through much more laurel than I wanted to. Much more.

Dan Kupiec fishing a mountain brook in Connecticut for brook trout, a species native to the eastern U. S.

But I should start at the beginning.

Dan Kupiec, my neighbor and fishing buddy, called about noon. Did I want to fish for brook trout in the Litchfield Hills? A half-hour later we were traveling west on Route 44. Less than an hour after that we parked on a little roadside pull-over, put on our waders and headed up a mountain, following a brook.

It is not everybody’s cup of tea, but I discovered long ago that one of the great pleasures of fly-fishing is to ascend a mountain brook, flicking a fly into tiny pools, seeking native, wild brook trout. Brook trout in these streams are mostly small – sometimes but a few inches, often only 6- or 7-inches long – and consequently of little interest to many anglers. But they are beautiful fish, with fiery orange bellies and white at the tips of their lower fins. Among yellow and chartreuse dots on their sides are red dots surrounded by powder blue halos. Why evolution settled upon that exact pattern I can not be certain, but in the water they all but disappear and that likely is what it is all about. In any event, they are beautiful. To my mind brook trout are among the handsomest creatures in the animal kingdom. That they are found in mountain brooks only makes them more appealing; a beautiful creature in a beautiful setting. Winslow Homer painted scenes like this.

What is more beautiful – a brook trout or the mountain streams they inhabit?

Dan and I fished and we fished, climbing steeply up the mountain toward a cascade with a big pool where we knew the fish might be bigger. But by the time we approached the pool, it was getting late. Worse, if we were to fish this pool we faced a tricky descent of about 200 feet down an extremely steep bank, then back up. Meanwhile, the trail had become indistinct. We decided to fish that pool another day. I was sure there was a better trail just south of us, so we decided to take that back to the car. It would be an easy downhill trek. We cut through the woods. But there was no trail where mister-know-it-all thought there was.

As I said, we were never lost. All we had to do was return to the brook and follow it back to the car, but that would be slow. Still, even if not lost, we were not, uhh, where I thought we would be either. We headed east, toward the car, blazing our own way, which, we discovered minutes later, was thick with laurel. What might have been a 15-minute walk became a half hour event pushing our way through thick shrubbery.

But we arrived at the car somehow unscratched, our water bottles empty. Dan had plenty of water in the car. Our laurel adventure notwithstanding, it had been a beautiful afternoon communing with the brook and its brook trout. We toasted the outing appropriately, sending mini-cascades of water tumbling down our throats.

Picnic Perfect

May 14, 2010

The leaves are full and fresh, temperatures are ideal, and the songbirds have arrived in Connecticut. This is a great time for picnicking, especially if you can find one of those special, quiet spots where the picnic tables are spread out and the scenery is special. Find an isolated table, bring lunch or dinner, and keep your binoculars ready. The sight of a scarlet tanager alone would make the outing worthwhile.

My outdoors column called Walkabout appears May 29 on the cover of The Hartford Courant Living section. In it I talk about four very special picnic sites around the state, each with privacy and a view. Let’s hope for beautiful weather.

The birthplace of Gen. Nathaniel Lyon, the first Union general killed in the Civil War, is today a little-known and little-visited picnic site within the Natchaug State Forest in Eastford, Ct. The stone chimney is all that remains of the Lyon homestead, and serves as a centerpiece for the picnic area, with four picnic tables, grills and a water pump.

In addition to those mentioned in the column, here are a couple of other very nice picnic spots:
In Bigelow Hollow State Park in Union, take a left off the entrance road to the boat ramp on Bigelow Pond. To the left of the ramp on a rise are a couple of tables with nice views of this quiet pond. In June, mountain laurel blooms profusely along the shore of the pond. Very nice.
In the Housatonic Meadows State Park picnic area in Sharon, stay to the right when you enter and follow the road to a small parking area next to the Housatonic River. You’ll see the table.  Fly-fishers and kayakers are part of the scenery here.

“Biking Along the Great River”

May 9, 2010

My stories on bicycle trips in the Connecticut River valley from the Canadian border to the sea are the cover of today’s Living section in The Hartford Courant, with photos by Mark Mirko and Rich Messina. They can be seen on-line at: http://www.courant.com/features/travel/

The Columbia Bridge spans the Connecticut River between Columbia, N. H. and Lemington, Vt.
The 410-mile-long Connecticut River is New England’s longest river, beginning in spruce forest in northern New Hampshire, where the river is narrow and intimate. It is still bordered by scenic farms in Vermont and New Hampshire and parts of Massachusetts and Connecticut. By the time it reaches the sea at Old Saybrook and Old Lyme it is a mile-wide and heavily tidal. Along the river are covered bridges, lighthouses, historic homes and farms. In fact, it is a river so rich in history, so varied in its landscapes that it captures the essence of New England in one ribbon of water.

The Connecticut is one of only 14 federally designated American Heritage Rivers. The marshes at its mouth are designated as internationally significant under the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty intended to protect especially valuable wetlands. The Connecticut has a long cultural history and rich flora, fauna and scenery that has appealed to artists for centuries.

Hard to Top This Scenery

May 7, 2010
At Salisbury, Ct.

The hike to Lions Head on the section of the Appalachian Trail that passes through Salisbury is high on my list of the best half-day hikes in Connecticut. If you like to hike and haven’t done this one, well, it is a must-do. From the little dirt parking area off Route 41 to the Lions Head lookout is 2.3 miles, 4.6 miles round trip. For many people, I’ve found, myself included, a hike of 4 to 5 miles is just right most days – not too long and tiring, but just long enough to make it worth while and get some real exercise. Lions Head is a moderately steep climb that reasonably fit adults and most children can do in a few hours. Hiking the trail today we came upon a conga-line of middle-school students with their teacher. They seemed happy. Of course, who wouldn’t be happy to be hiking the Appalachian Trail on a 70-degree sunny day in May?

Hikers Frances and Jay Knobel atop Lions Head lookout on the Appalachian Trail, Salisbury, Ct. Lions Head has outstanding views to the north, east and south.

This hike packs a lot in a comparatively short distance; a forest with a rich mix of species and some wonderful old trees; a couple of brooks to treat the eye; woodland wildflowers and birds, a terrific view from the top. Watch for some nice American beeches, old hemlocks, a big white birch and several massive oaks. Wild geranium and starflower bloomed along the edges of the trail today, and deep-pink sheep laurel blossoms brushed our shoulders in places. Our bird of the day was the veery, that cousin of the American robin, with its pleasing combination of cinnamon back and gray-white belly. I thought I heard a raven croak several times, but never got a look. Can’t count that one.

A big part of the appeal of this trail of course is the view from Lions Head lookout, elevation 1,738-feet. The view northeast to southeast is miles of rolling Litchfield Hills, Prospect Mountain and Canaan Mountain among them. You’ll see farms, country estates, and several of the state’s nicest lakes – Wononscopomuc and the Twin Lakes. You could spend an hour with binoculars identifying this or that in the distance. Yes, that’s the private Salisbury School on the hilltop off in the distance to the east.

As for the name Lions Head, I read somewhere that the exposed rock outlook in fact is supposed to resemble a lion’s head. I’ve not been able to discern the resemblance myself, but maybe I haven’t found the right vantage point. Guess that is another reason to keep hiking.

Outdoors in May

May 4, 2010

At the big pond down the street, the kingfishers have been back for at least a month. The herons and swallows are back, too. The spotted sandpipers arrived within the last week, best I can tell. Alarmed, they fly out in front of me just over the water as I approach in a kayak and circle back behind me to that narrow ribbon of terrestrial habitat – water’s edge – where they spend so much of their time. We play out this little drama over and over until fall, when they leave.

In my vegetable garden by the river, the lettuce, the chard and the parsley are doing fine. Might be enough chard to pick for a dinner later this week. A row of carrots is planted, but not yet poking through. The real work remains, planting squash, bean, pepper and tomato varieties, more herbs, eggplant and a row or two of cutting flowers.

It is a mild spring so far, and the leaves are, by my assessment, a week ahead of schedule in inland Connecticut. Many trees are filled out with the buttery greens and velvet textures of young, unblemished leaves.

May is one of the great months in Connecticut with those infant leaves and the arriving songbirds, some of the birds just passing through on their way north, some settling in for the season. It is not only a new landscape; it is a new environment. Suddenly, I awake each morning to the song of a Carolina wren in the side yard. Bird songs increase by the day.

From my study this afternoon I heard a pair of pileated woodpeckers uttering their loud, distinctive, almost diabolical call. They are year-round residents, but from their squawking and aerial acrobatics the message they sent was one of May, merriment and mating. I ran out with my camera but, wanting their privacy, off they went.

I always thought during my daily newspaper journalism days that it would be wonderful some time to take the entire month of May off and just be outdoors every day. In Connecticut, May introduces summer. Now that I am a freelance writer – semi-retired, some claim – I do have more time to venture afield, often combining work and play.

I hiked for two hours along the Shepaug River one day last week with an old college friend, Jay Knobel, his wife, Frances, and her college friend, Nancy Register Splane. We hiked a little more than four miles through the Steep Rock Reservation, nodding to the common mergansers and the mallards, listening for the early arriving warblers, stopping to stare at the river, one of the prettiest anywhere.

I’ve been traveling the state, in fact, immersing myself in the month of May and working on my next column for The Hartford Courant, May 15, in which I will talk about some very special picnic sites – isolated, cozy picnic tables you can have to yourself, with terrific scenery. There are a couple of nice ones in the Steep Rock Reservation.

Nancy Register Splane, left, and Jay and Frances Knobel hiking along the Shepaug River, Washington, Ct