Exploring The Last Green Valley: Winter is perfect time of year to get outdoors

Exploring The Last Green Valley: Winter is perfect time of year to get outdoors

The Winter Solstice will be marked at 5:44 a.m. this coming Wednesday.

The word solstice comes from the Latin words for sun and to stand still.

 Winter Solstice is when the Earth’s axial tilt is farthest away from the sun and the sun’s daily position in the sky is the lowest.

From here on out, the days will get longer and the sun higher in the sky.

Here in The Last Green Valley, I enjoy all seasons of the year. Every morning the rising sun brings the chance to explore our region and take in the wonders right outside our door — even in the winter.

The Last Green Valley has many wonderful locations for snowshoeing and here are a few of my favorite places to snowshoe this winter.

For wide open space and acres of snow-covered fields, it is hard to beat the Quinebaug Valley Trout Hatchery.

The hatchery, located at 141 Trout Hatchery Road in the Central Village section of Plainfield, is on approximately 2,000 acres of state-owned land and was constructed in 1971.

The main hatchery building is open from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and there are restrooms and self-guided tours available in the main building.

 The large, wide-open field below the hatchery facility is several hundred acres of relatively flat terrain adjacent to the Quinebaug River. This large field is available for many recreational opportunities including snowshoeing.

There is a loop road used by the hatchery staff for access to several wells that provide water to the trout-raising tanks. This road is plowed in the winter, so for snowshoeing, it is better to keep to the open fields.

The fields are only mowed every few years and provide wonderful open habitat for bird life. Many species of winter birds can be found feeding on seeds from the shrubs and plants. Bring your binoculars and a field guide and enjoy the opportunity to view birds.

The Quinebaug River is home to resident bald eagles and is used as a winter hunting ground for migrating eagles from the northern regions of New England that move south in search of open water.

Most winter days, eagles can be seen flying over the hatchery and up or down the Quinebaug River. They also can be seen roosting on the tall electricity transmission towers that cross through the hatchery property.

If you prefer to snowshoe in a more wooded area, then the Air Line State Park Trail is an option to consider. The 50-mile Air Line Trail goes from East Hampton to Thompson with approximately 30 miles in The Last Green Valley.

The Air Line Trail is not plowed so it is perfect for winter activities like cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.

The three sections that I am most familiar with for snowshoeing include the section in Hampton at the Goodwin Forest and Conservation Center off of Route 6, the section in East Thompson off of East Thompson Road and the Pomfret section off of Route 169.

Each of these sections is wooded, wide open, relatively level and provides great opportunities for observing winter birds and other wildlife.

To find out more about the Air Line State Park Trail go to the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection website at ct.gov/deep and use the search tab for Air Line Trail. The Air Line Trail section of the website includes downloadable trail maps and videos about the different trail sections.

If I am looking for a more strenuous snowshoe hike on rougher, wooded trails I’ll head to either Pachaug State Forest in Voluntown or Nipmuck State Forest & Bigelow State Park in Union.

Both locations offer thousands of acres of forest habitat and excellent trails for hiking and snowshoeing. Trails maps are also available through the state DEEP website.

When going out to snowshoe, it is important to be prepared for the cold weather and to plan accordingly to ensure a safe day.

I dress in layers with a waterproof jacket and pants, and carry a backpack with trail maps, compass, extra gloves and hat, emergency space blanket, lighter, flashlight or headlamp, snacks and a thermos of hot tea or coffee.

If going out alone I make sure someone knows where I am and when I expect to return.

For me, the thrill of snowshoeing is seeing and identifying tracks in the snow, so I’ll make sure to pack a field guide about animal tracks and signs.

Fresh snow is the perfect opportunity to learn more about winter habits of the many mammals and birds that live in our region.

I frequently encounter tracks, scat and other signs of rabbit, mouse, deer, coyote, and fox.

At times I’ll find impressions in the snow illustrating a chase between prey and predator and will examine the clues to decipher the life and death struggle that ensued.

There are several excellent books on animal tracks but my favorite is “Tracking and the Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks and Signs” by Paul Rezendes.

Small pocket guides on animal tracks and signs are handy for taking in the field and the Audubon Society guides and Peterson guides are excellent resources to consider.

Winter is here and the months ahead provide countless opportunities to explore, learn and experience The Last Green Valley. I hope you’ll join me as we care for, enjoy, and work to pass on this beautiful place we call home.

Bill Reid is chief ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 30 years. He can be reached at bill@tlgv.org.

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