The summit beckoned in the dark.
But the highlight this Monday morning in August would not be the sweeping views of southeastern Connecticut atop Lantern Hill. We would climb, relish the instant gratification of a 400-foot scramble on white quartz, then continue on the Narragansett Trail, ultimately ending at Ashville Pond in Rhode Island.
Twenty-two miles, or so we estimated, and a very long day, lay ahead.
There were four of us along for the 5:30 a.m. ride. Peter Huoppi, The Day's multimedia director, brought along two pocket-sized video cameras and an iPhone. Steve Fagin, The Day's outdoors blogger, and Bob Andrews, a volunteer trail manager with the Connecticut Forest & Park Association, provided all the local knowledge we would need. I, Jenna Cho, being overly cautious, carried for myself enough food to sustain all four of us.
Headlamps in place, we followed the CFPA's blue trail. Daylight broke halfway up the 10-15 minute hike, and we took in the stillness of the summit at sunrise.
Peter and I ruined the thrill of being out in nature by whipping out our phones and beaming out news of our first stop to Facebook and Twitter. We were out to experience the local wilderness like never before, but we were also working.
The Narragansett Trail, like many other trails in Connecticut, are named after Native Americans as a tribute to old footpaths, according to state archeologist Nicholas F. Bellantoni's entries in the CFPA's "Connecticut Walk Book: The Guide to the Blue-Blazed Hiking Trails of Eastern Connecticut."
The trails are likely not the same ones that Native Americans used, Bellantoni wrote. But "ancient peoples walking along Ragged Mountain, Mount Higby, Lantern Hill … and a host of other natural and geological landmarks, would no doubt recognize these features in the land and know exactly where they were."
The bugs had started pestering us by the time we started the descent, down onto the North Stonington transfer station. We weren't the only ones up: A pound puppy studied us as we walked by, and North Stonington Public Works Director Steve Holliday drove past as we left the transfer station and entered the woods across Wintechog Hill Road.
Peter: North Stonington dog pound to Bear Cave
The clatter of Steve's trekking poles on pavement as we passed the green aluminum siding of the transfer station was my first indication that this would be a different kind of hike. Unlike the vast woods of northern New England, Connecticut's forests are fractured by ever-expanding roads and housing developments. Because of this, the Narragansett Trail is not a single footpath in the wilderness. It follows sections of state highway, skirts farm fields and shares tracts of state forest with a motorcycle trail.
As we followed centuries-old stone walls through the forest, Bob explained which ones were built to contain sheep and pointed out the rock piles lined up where new walls had been planned many years ago. After about 3 miles, we emerged to cross Route 2, following blue blazes painted on telephone poles and street signs, until we reached the first of three water drops that Steve had made for us the night before.
All 825 miles of trail maintained by the CFPA are marked with the same hue of blue paint used since the first trails were cut in 1929. The color, according to Bob, was selected for its visibility in low light. The trails were established as a way for people to escape the growing urbanization of the time. As we climbed up Cossaduck Hill away from the din of Route 2, it was easy to understand their sentiment.
The next landmark on our map was a scenic overlook at Mile 4, but we didn't idle - just a few feet to our left was a campsite with its occupant still asleep in a hammock. We descended into a valley and hiked along the edge of an unnamed pond on Yawbux Brook. Steve and Bob pointed out herons and kingfishers as well as the telltale wood chips of beaver activity.
High water in this section has forced the trail to be relocated, work that is undertaken by volunteers like Bob. In a phone interview before our hike, CFPA Trail Stewardship Director Clare Cain stressed the importance of volunteers.
"(The trails) seem like they've been there forever, like they just are naturally set into the landscape, but it really is quite a bit of work that our volunteers do to keep the trails open to the public," she said.
After 6½ miles, the boat launch at Wyassup Lake provided a nice place for a snack. Refueled, we followed motorcycle tire tracks off the pavement and into Pachaug State Forest. It was clear that the alliance between hikers and off-road vehicle enthusiasts is an uneasy one, as Bob lamented the erosion caused by motorcycles straying from their prescribed trails.
Off the shared paths and climbing up rock formations that could only be traversed on foot, Steve stopped us and pointed to a gap in the rock that I would have walked right past. The opening of the crevice, known as the Bear Cave, was just wide enough for Steve, Jenna and me to drop through one at a time. Below, the beams of our headlamps illuminated a chamber that fit all of us comfortably. Though reluctant at first, even Bob put aside his claustrophobia to explore a feature of the trail that he had missed on previous outings.
Jenna: Pendleton Hill Road to Green Fall Pond
A conscientious hiker, Bob paused frequently to pull down makeshift trail markers tied around trees and branches. They were marking unofficial trails that could mislead hikers or encourage mountain bikers and hunters to veer off the marked trail, he said. He stuffed the tags in his pocket, only to yelp at one point when he realized a bug had hitchhiked its way in and clamped down on his fingers. That, and the wasps that stung Bob on his stomach and Steve on his arm, were the only confrontations with beasts we'd have that day. Real beasts, that is.
If descending onto the North Stonington transfer station was disorienting, walking through the Groton Sportsmen's Club was downright surreal. We encountered a wild boar, a mountain lion and a bear striking a threatening pose, all foam and no bite. They were there as target practice, and Bob said you could even come across a polar bear and other exotic animals if you looked in the right places.
The trail through the club was largely overgrown, and we cursed the pricklers that attacked our bare legs.
We hiked through one of Steve's favorite stretches, along a former mill site that nature has since taken over. We followed the stream up to the Green Fall Pond dam, which required a decent amount of rock scrambling.
Having encountered so few people along the way, we were startled to come face-to-face with a man with a raggedy beard, jogging merrily down the rocks in a flannel shirt, rubber boots and - I could have sworn I saw these, but no one else did - black rubber gloves.
I took to calling him the body-dumper.
Peter: Green Fall Pond to Ashville Pond
Ten hours on the trail can do strange things to your mind - far worse things than inventing a rubber glove-clad apparition. When we reached the column marking the border between Connecticut and Rhode Island, we made our only navigational error of the day.
The border marked the terminus of the trails described in the CFPA "Walk Book." The rest of the way, we'd be relying on unofficial trail descriptions gathered online. One website listed the total mileage of the Narragansett Trail as 20.6 miles. Having just completed 18.3 miles, another 2.3 seemed easy enough.
Steve had hiked portions of the Rhode Island trail before and declared that we should reach the end in about an hour. Jenna called Jeff Johnson, our colleague at The Day, to arrange a pickup, and we headed off down Camp Yawgoog Road.
I noticed our shadows stretching out straight behind us. A look at the compass confirmed: we were walking west, while our destination lay to the southeast.
Headed back in the right direction, we encountered a few fellow hikers on that last stretch, all of them out for much shorter excursions than we were. Because the trail system is quite literally in people's backyards, Clare Cain at the CFPA estimates that most of its users are not necessarily out to log big miles.
We followed the yellow blazes of the Appalachian Mountain Club's Narragansett chapter, and the supposed last hour of our hike grew to 2½, largely because of the undulating rocky landscape around Ell Pond and Long Pond. On a shorter outing, the craggy rocks would have been scenery to enjoy instead of mere obstacles to step over.
We actually covered about 4 miles in Rhode Island. Including our little detour, we covered about 23 miles in 13 hours. The trip ended with little fanfare. After arriving at Ashville Pond, we exchanged handshakes, snapped a ceremonial group photo, and piled into Jeff's two-door Honda for the ride back.