A Winter Hike in The Last Green Valley
Every season of the year brings an opportunity for an enjoyable day outdoors, whether it is spent exploring forest or field, river or lake. Months and weeks turn purposefully through the lifecycle of our natural world. Our encounters and experiences change within that annual cycle and here in New England we are fortunate to experience each season with its distinct characteristics.
Spring starts with drab grays and splotches of green. Then, as if in the blink of an eye, there are green shoots and buds reaching for sun. As the earth warms, I’ll look for lady slipper and red trillium along trails and listen for migrating songbirds announcing their return to nesting territories. No need for earbuds and musical entertainment when thrush, vireo and oriole are performing live. Binoculars at the ready, and my ear cocked to the trees, I pause when the music stops to scan the treetops for the elusive birds hidden within new green leaves.
Hiking in summer is t-shirts and shorts, bug spray always within reach and plenty of water and sunscreen. The pulsing buzz of the insects is the new courtship tune and as summer slowly advances it replaces the avian songsters of spring. Birds are now focused on bringing food to nestlings and insects make for protein rich food. Along riverbanks I’ll be looking for the brilliant red cardinal flower, a sure sign of summer.
There is no better time for an outdoor ramble than autumn. We grab sweaters for the morning chill, appreciate fewer biting insects and watch for gathering flocks of Canada geese, robins and grackles. I can’t help but be awed by hillsides ablaze in red, yellow and orange. When the colors of fall foliage fade to brown and drop from branches I know hunting season is here. The bright orange in the woods becomes my hiking vest announcing my presence.
Come winter everything changes. Though there are fewer birds in The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor, it is the best season for learning which mammals are living among forest and field. A hike with fresh snow on the ground reveals tracks from many of our region’s mammals, and a tracking field guide is a helpful addition to winter hiking gear. I frequently see coyote, fox, opossum, squirrel and rabbit tracks when hiking. They use our trails or cross them as they wander and hunt in search of food. The lucky hiker may also see bobcat tracks with telltale paw impressions. The retractable claws of the feline mean the paw print will not show the claw points as they do for canine species.
A few years back, a winter hike along the Shetucket River revealed the track of an otter. I followed the tracks where the otter came out of the river, walked along shore then slid on its stomach back into the cold water.
Birds leave tracks too, and I look for the large three-toed track of wild turkeys (usually in groups) as well as crows and ravens. While hiking in New Hampshire I came upon the track of a ruffed grouse. It had emerged from a small snow cave and had walked a bit across the trail, then took flight leaving a distinctive wing print in the light snow. I also saw coyote tracks nearby, a possible hint that the grouse had made a narrow escape.
Hiking in winter requires additional preparation. During the warmer months I use a smaller pack that carries a water bottle, snack, bug spray, small first aid kit, hat, sunscreen, compass, magnifying glass, camera, notepad, and binoculars. I wear a multi-tool device on my belt and have a trail map in my pocket for quick access. Depending on the duration of my hike, I’ll make sure my cell phone is fully charged before heading out and also carry a small portable phone charger in the event it is needed. I also have a headlamp and lighter in case I get caught out after dark. I may have a light fleece and compact rain jacket as well.
In winter I need to be prepared for much harsher elements and that requires a larger pack. I dress in layers with warm hat and gloves. If the snow is deep and I am on snowshoes, I’ll wear leg gaiters to keep my boots and lower legs dry. The extra room in my pack is for outer garments I may need to shed if the day gets warmer. In addition to most of the items I bring during warmer months, my winter pack has extra pairs of gloves, socks and a stocking cap. The best way to ruin a nice winter hike is cold and wet feet, hands and head. You must be prepared to keep the “extremities” warm as well as your body’s core.
On every winter hike, unless the region is completely free of snow and ice, I bring along additional traction for my hiking boots. A variety of companies make rubber and metal devices that slip over your hiking boots to give you extra grip on snow and ice. On our more popular trails, snow quickly gets packed down and turns to ice making it dangerous and hazardous for walking.
Hiking in winter also means being prepared for hypothermia – not just for you, but also for another hiker you might encounter who is in need of first aid care. I carry an emergency “space blanket” that is tiny and lightweight, but when unfolded can be wrapped around someone cold and hypothermic. It helps retain body heat and can be a lifesaver. I also carry a waterproof “bivy sack” that folds up very small, but when unfolded is large enough for a person to climb into. Thankfully I have never had to use either of these safety items, but they still go in my winter pack just in case.
Our region is full of great locations for winter hikes. We are blessed with large state parks and forests open for our enjoyment. Some trails are miles long and lead into deep remote forests. We also can enjoy the amazing statewide network of blue blazed trails, organized by the Connecticut Forest and Park Association, and maintained by volunteer trail stewards. The blue blazed trails are my go to location for longer distance hikes. We also have many land trusts in the region that provide exceptional locations for a hike. Their websites are filled with great outdoor locations and most have trail maps for easy download and printout.
The Last Green Valley Explore Guide is full of exceptional hiking locations. It is available online at the TLGV website: https://thelastgreenvalley.org/explore-the-last-green-valley/explore-guide/ You can also receive a print version by calling TLGV at 860-774-3300.
Across The Last Green Valley and throughout New England the last 10 months have seen a dramatic increase in use of our outdoor locations. During the Covid-19 pandemic we are fortunate to have these natural resources for our enjoyment so close to home. It is up to us to use them responsibly. Even in the coldest days of winter we can find inspiration and amazement in the outdoors.
We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley. I hope you’ll join us in appreciation for the natural and cultural resources of the region. Together, let us can care for it, enjoy it, and pass it on.
Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. He has lived in and explored the region for 40 years and can be reached at email@example.com
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