Exploring The Last Green Valley: Hike to Breakneck Pond like visiting home of old friend
In my capacity as chief ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor, I have maintained a tradition for the past several years of leading a hike or paddle on the first day of each season.
We have enjoyed winter solstice snowshoe treks, vernal (spring) equinox forest romps, and summer solstice sunset paddles. The autumnal equinox was just six days ago, so we headed over to Bigelow Hollow State Park in Union for a long-distance loop hike of just more than six miles to Breakneck Pond, around it and back. It was also a nice way to celebrate the first full week of Walktober 2019.
A hike at Bigelow Hollow State Park and Breakneck Pond is like visiting the home of an old friend. I have been there many times and always enjoy a return trip. The park lies within the boundary of the Nipmuck State Forest, with both park and forest totaling more than 9,000 acres. I never tire of visiting the familiar terrain and the sense of well-being that comes with experiencing the forest and its ponds and lake.
Six years ago, I was asked by staff at CT DEEP Wildlife Division to confirm a bald eagle nest that had been reported in the Breakneck Pond area. I found the nest and was asked to monitor it over a 10-week period that spring and early summer. It required hiking two miles one way to a spot on the Nipmuck Trail that afforded a decent view of the nest.
I visited it every other week during the nesting season through the hatching of two eggs and the growth of the eaglets from little white fuzzballs of four-inches tall to grown fledglings 30-inches long with wingspans of six-feet. Two eaglets hatched this April, but by early June only one eaglet was still in the nest. It fledged in mid-July.
During those weeks I became accustomed to the sights, sounds, smells and “feel” of the woods and trail. I would stop to check a small vernal pool for frog eggs and tadpoles. More than once deer crossed the trail several yards in front of me. They would suddenly appear on the trail ahead of me and then, with flashing white tail, vanish into the deep hemlock forest. When the trail was muddy, I would find their tracks, as well as coyote, fox and bobcat. One time I discovered a beautiful eastern newt still in its red eft stage. The bright red orange is kind of hard to miss and there it was on the side of the trail.
Monday, I returned with more than a dozen hikers with the aim of a longer hike around the pond. As we approached the southern end of Breakneck pond the eastern newt was seemingly everywhere. We spotted half-a-dozen of them in their red eft stage, possibly looking to colonize new waters. They were only the first of the amphibians we encountered throughout the hike.
From the southern end of Breakneck Pond, we took the blue blazed Nipmuck Trail along the eastern shore of the pond to the stream at the northern end for a break. The pond is just under 1.5 miles long with the northern end of the pond crossing into Southbridge, Mass. Here there is a small dam and an outflowing brook called Breakneck Brook that flows northward for just more than three miles into Southbridge where it joins the Quinebaug River just west of the Westville Recreation Area. Along the banks of Breakneck Pond and brook we took a break and enjoyed snacks and cold drinks before starting back on the Breakneck Pond View Trail on the western shore. We, of course, also made a quick stop at the marker denoting the state line between Massachusetts and Connecticut.
It was an unseasonably warm day with afternoon temperatures hitting the 80s. Within the deep shade of the Nipmuck Forest the temperature was about five degrees cooler, but it still felt more like summer than fall. Like many of our region’s intact forest tracks, the Nipmuck Forest is a mix of hardwood deciduous tree and softwood conifers.
Bigelow Hollow is known for cooler temperatures, almost with its own “micro-climate” deep within the hollow and the tall pine and hemlock trees of the Nipmuck Forest. Breakneck Pond, located within the belly between ridges to the east and west, is usually cooler than at the park entrance. During my late winter and early spring hikes to Breakneck Pond I frequently find snow and ice on the trail while areas outside the park are snow free.
Here is a description of Bigelow Hollow State Park and Nipmuck State Forest from the CT DEEP website.
Nipmuck State Forest and Bigelow Hollow State Park in the town of Union lie within one of the largest unbroken forest areas in Eastern Connecticut. Nipmuck is the second oldest state forest in Connecticut. The first parcel was acquired in 1905. Additional lands in the towns of Stafford, Ashford, Willington, and Woodstock have been added to the forest over the years. Today Nipmuck State Forest and Bigelow Hollow total more than 9,000 acres. The recreation area in Bigelow Hollow was established in 1949 by the State Park and Forest Commission.
The name “Bigelow” is a mystery since no person of that name seems to have been associated with this area. According to older residents of Union, the name is derived from “Big Low” in reference to the deep hollow in which the 18-acre pond of that name is located. The word “Mashapaug” is the Nipmuck Indian word for “Great Pond”. The present lake of 300 acres was originally about half the size. In the mid-1880′s, two different parties attempted to draw the water from this natural pond. One party ditched to the north and the other to the south. The latter party was forced to give up the battle when they ran into a ledge and later joined forces with their rivals to create the present lake. Two other smaller ponds, Breakneck and Griggs, lie to the north and east of Mashapaug in Nipmuck State Forest.
For information on Bigelow Hollow State Park and trail maps to Breakneck Pond check out the CT DEEP website at:
The next time you’re looking for a special place to hike, paddle, fish or picnic I hope you’ll consider Bigelow Hollow State Park and the Nipmuck State Forest. The section of the blue blazed Nipmuck Trail in the park and forest is one of my favorite hikes.
We live in a beautiful region called The Last Green Valley, rich in natural and cultural resources. I hope you’ll join me and others as we work together to care for, enjoy and pass it on to the next generation.
Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 35 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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