Taking A Hike: Three faces of winter

Winter, I have said before, is my second favorite hiking season. I doubt it will ever replace fall, but more winters like this and it just might. We’ve had cold — oh, yes — but just a little snow — enough to adorn but not to force the hiker into snowshoes or into post-holing. So the trails have been open and my only regret is that my outings were not more frequent. Still, I must not complain, and here are three reasons why.


Bear tracks in the snow

Forest Walk at the Mattatuck Trail in Warren. — Rob McWilliams photo

The western sections of the Mattatuck Trail run through Warren and Cornwall, ending at the top of the Mohawk Mountain ski runs. (The eastern sections — disconnected from the western — are unknown territory for me.) A year ago, I took my first Mattatuck steps, hiking through Cornwall to Mohawk Pond and Mohawk Mountain. This time, I walked the 7.7 miles of Mattatuck Trail that lie in Warren, ending where I had started a year ago.

The Warren section boasts no grand features; no hill-wrapped ponds or big-view tops. It is a forest walk, and none the worse for that. We set off from below Shepaug Reservoir and at first trudged uphill under cloudy skies, a few inches of old snow underfoot. But the trail levelled out and became an easy line through the winter woods, brightened occasionally in pale sunshine. At noon, we came to a swamp — straw-colored reeds standing in snow-covered ice!

After the swamp came a half-frozen brook which we crossed with difficulty. I tested a sheet of ice with my poles, judged it too fragile and, maneuvering around it, heard an abrupt crack as it collapsed in delayed reaction to my touch. The afternoon brightened, casting faint shadows on the snow. And in the snow we saw big, five-toed prints. Bear!


New year in the Den

Godfrey Pond at Devil’s Den in Weston. — Rob McWilliams photo

If the Mattatuck Trail had been winter in subdued mood, New Year’s Day brought out the season’s full brilliance — clear air; a flawless blue sky; sharp tree shadows cast on an inch or two of shining snow. I’d come to the Devil’s Den in Weston to get 2018 off to a good start. It was certainly off to a cold start; the day began at zero and rose no higher than the teens. My plan was to hike a loop comprising the Den’s outermost trails, a task of about four hours.

Godfrey Pond was frozen hard, the silhouettes of bordering trees projected onto its surface in high definition. Ninety minutes later, after trekking up the Den’s east side, I looked over Saugatuck Reservoir from Redding Great Ledge. The deep part of the reservoir was a dark, unfrozen blue; the rest, crisp white. The moistureless air displayed water, forest, and a distant round hill in sharpest focus.               

West Branch Saugatuck River at Devil’s Den in Weston. — Rob McWilliams photo

I stopped on a ledge on Cedar Cliff Trail for a lunch eaten pacing around, and then hiked south along the Den’s western edge, arriving in an hour at the West Branch Saugatuck River. It was frozen, of course, and critters had left their tracks on its surface snow. Sunset was still two hours away, but the sun’s lowering rays were lighting up bare trunks in that dazzling way that I shall miss if I ever leave Connecticut.


Thaw and freeze


A week after my loop at the Den, the Big Freeze finally let up. On the Friday before Martin Luther King Day, temperatures briefly soared — then plummeted again. I had decided on an Martin Luther King Day outing, but even driving up Route 7, I was dithering about where exactly. After breakfast in Kent, I plumped for Macedonia Brook State Park, and drove across a Housatonic River choked to the brim with boulders of ice.

In Macedonia Brook, the parking area for the blue-blazed loop trail was covered in a gray rink and I drove on to the Cobble Mountain trailhead. I was pretty sure I could at least climb Cobble without running into ice too treacherous to navigate. The morning was cloudy and raw, flecks of snow drifting in the air.

The Mattatuck Trail crosses the Shepaug River in Cornwall. — Rob McWilliams photo

The 600-foot climb to Cobble’s summit kept me warm and got my heart pumping. At the top, the clouds had lifted and thinned just a little, and the view into New York had a touch of brightness about it, though flecks still drifted down. Where should I go now? Not off Cobble’s northeast side; it had steep rocks and, today, probably steep ice. I took the gentler southern route down. This trail, I knew, boasted views into and over the valley of Macedonia Brook. Even on a harsh day like this they did not disappoint — lovely lumps of hills sheathed in gray-brown woods on the opposite side of the valley from the similar lump I stood upon.  

I was done with my Cobble hike by 10:30 a.m., and the “where now?” question came up again. And I had an answer. Somewhere among those lovely lumps east of Macedonia Brook lay Fuller Pond, which I’d never visited. A short drive to Pound Mountain Natural Area, and then a short trail, brought me to its banks. The surrounding wooded hills were dark, but the pond — a quarter-mile across — was a single sheet of groaning ice. I didn’t want to be anywhere else, and I wasn’t yearning for spring.       


Rob McWilliams is a local resident. Taking a Hike appears eight times a year. Contact Rob at “McWilliams Takes a Hike” blog and Facebook. He’d love to hear from you.