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If you forgot about this holiday, then go take a hike

June 7, 2013

On our Saturday morning walk, we were surprised to be visited by a female wood frog, who was watching our National Trails Day group from the comfort of a clump of sphagnum moss. The frog's male cohorts even serenaded us from a nearby vernal pool, even though the breeding season was long past. (Photo by Bruce Fellman)

Last Saturday, the first of June, was, so I was informed, one of those commemorative dates which pop up so often that it’s hard to keep track—and hard to take seriously. Oh sure, there’s Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, which are, when I’m feeling especially cynical, simply events manufactured to sell greeting cards, flowers, nice restaurant brunches, and hardware. (I’ll leave it to readers to determine whether mom or dad would be happiest with a bouquet or a chainsaw.)

One thing is certain: these are days, just a tier down from birthdays and anniversaries, to ignore at one’s peril. The people encompassed by the celebration date might say how little they care, but, trust me, they lie. So, I can only hope that you did something nice for mom last month, and with dad’s day coming up on June 16, well, dear children, your father could really use... oh heck, it doesn’t matter. Just call to say hi. Or stop over. (But remember, it’s the Stihl Farm Boss, Model MS 290... do you want me to repeat that?)
Beyond those mandatory commemoratives, there’s an amazing list of dates you might not need to worry so much about celebrating. I somehow missed Darwin Day (February 12) and Pi Day (March 14). Ditto for Star Wars Day (May 4) and Towel Day (May 25, which celebrates The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy): they zipped by without so much as a murmur on the ridge. And I’m guessing that I’ll most likely resist taking time off for International Talk Like a Pirate Day (September 19)—OK, maties, let’s hear a hearty Arghhhh!—and Mole Day (October 23, which, incidentally, celebrates Avogadro’s Number rather than that Mexican sauce or a subterranean mammal).
I didn’t, however, miss the festivities on June 1: National Trails Day.
NTD, which is a registered trademark of the American Hiking Society (AHS), debuted on June 5, 1993, and since then, the AHS has taken the lead in promoting the first Saturday in June as a time for “a celebration of America’s magnificent Trail System.” According to the Maryland-based nonprofit group’s website (www.americanhiking.org) there are some 200,000 miles of trails in this country, and last Saturday, there were events in every state to highlight them. In New England, for example, there were opportunities for everything from a family walk in Seekonk to a working event in Cornwall, Connecticut, for the Pine Swamp Privy Construction Project. Close to home, I had my choice of four guided tours in my hometown, which has a rich network of trails, many I’m very familiar with.
After a fair amount of internal wrangling, I chose a trek sponsored by the Avalonia Land Conservancy. ALC is a wonderful organization that was founded in 1968 and is “dedicated to the acquisition and conservation of natural areas” in southeastern CT. The Conservancy has over 2,500 acres in its holdings, and the NTD walk was designed to get hikers familiar with one of the organization’s newest properties, the Donald R. Henne Memorial Preserve. I knew Don slightly. He lived up the road from me, and he died way too young: he was 56 when he passed away in 2007. I was always sorry I didn’t get to know him better, since he was an ardent and well-respected conservationist, who served on town boards. Don was also a crackerjack wildlife biologist, whose long career with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service eventually brought him to Trustom Pond and the rest of the wildlife refuge system in our area—the very system that gave rise to my convoluted writing career.
Walking the trails in an area Don loved was a way to pay proper tribute, and, as an unexpected bonus, the few of us who showed up to walk—I guess it’s hard to bring people outside on a Saturday morning—were treated to a bracing semi-bushwhack along a sort-of trail through the ALC’s work-in-progress: the acquisition of a 74-acre parcel of rugged upland forest and ledges tentatively called the Babcock Ridge Preserve. Walk leaders Duncan Schweitzer and Janice Parker, the ALC’s president and executive director respectively, were a gold mine of information about the Byzantine ins-and-outs of the process by which exquisite pieces of land are put into public trust. Listening to the two of them talk about the property and the way they hoped to preserve it made me wish I’d listened to my parents and gone into a more lucrative trade. Had I chosen better, well, at least in terms of income potential, I could have, in this fantasy, finished the walk by, when we sat around enjoying juice and cookies, written a check for whatever amount they needed.
Alas, I’m a naturalist, not a financier, so all I could contribute was my own knowledge about what we discovered on the ridge and on the Henne Preserve that it would be connected to, assuming the fundraising effort to by the 74 acres is successful. And we discovered plenty. On a rocky hillside, we heard the ringing calls of ovenbirds, along with the insect-like trills of those will-o-the-wisp songbirds: worm-eating warblers. The ridge’s vernal pools were filled with wood frog and spotted salamander tadpoles, and in the sphagnum moss, one mama wood frog, still surprisingly fat-sided, even though she couldn’t possibly be carrying eggs, greeted us. Some of her male friends were actually calling, despite the fact that, according to my records, their chorus season was over nearly two months ago.
At the Henne Preserve, we walked along a glacial ridge called an esker that ALC volunteers had transformed into a delightful trail for two-legged hikers, as well as for horses. Duncan, a civil engineer, joked about how his training had helped him figure out the right way to construct a bridge that would properly handle equine weight distributions and forces. I was impressed.
I was also impressed, mightily, with the sheer beauty of the Preserve, with takes in a large swath of beaver-manipulated wetlands along the Shunock Brook. Osprey nested in a large dead tree, and a respectful distance away, there were at least two more-spindly nests constructed by great blue herons. A wealth of dragonflies and damselflies patrolled the water, and since I knew their identities, I could make myself useful to the group.
Getting dirt and mud in my cleats was a great way to celebrate NTD. Of course, getting dirt and mud in my cleats is a great way to celebrate any and every day. This is something I’ve been doing almost all my life, and it’s something I intend to continue for as long as this life continues.
It’s going to be a great week for mountain laurels. If you’re able to travel west of the Connecticut River, you should be able to witness the remarkable emergence of those Rip van Winkle insects, the 17-year-cicadas, who are now coming aboveground after nearly two decades of subterranean life. And there are abundant birds, bugs, and flowers waiting for you on the trail. On any trail.
Take a hike, and if you also happen to have come into any money, you can’t take it with you, after all, so consider sending that fortune to the ALC or any other land conservancy. Give your boots a kind of eternal life.

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