Giant Task

S ince May, the Sleeping Giant Park Association, whose mission is to protect and maintain Hamden’s iconic Sleeping Giant State Park, has faced its biggest challenge since the one that catalyzed the volunteer group’s formation in 1924. Back then, a quarrying company was chipping away at the Giant’s traprock head, threatening the mountain’s very essence. Today, hundreds of tornado-downed trees have threatened its utility and must be cleared from the trails before the park can open again.

When that will happen is still an open question. Tornado damage is most visible at the park’s main entrance, where state crews have taken down every broken tree—so, nearly every single tree—in the parking and picnic areas. The state Department of Energy & Environmental Protection (DEEP) is responsible for those areas as well as the Tower Trail, which has been widened to allow heavy equipment access to the top of the mountain.

Clearing the rest—blazed trails that snake along the Mill River, past an abandoned quarry, over steep outcrops of rock and through wooded glens—is up to SGPA volunteers. I’ve asked to tag along this Sunday morning to see what they’re up against and the progress they’ve made.

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As members fetch hard hats from a shed, check in for their assignments and greet old friends, Ray DeGennaro, who’s volunteered with the SGPA for seven years, spreads out a color-coded map of the park’s trails and consults with other trail crew chiefs. Each crew includes one sawyer with a small chainsaw and a couple of volunteers with hand tools.

As crews organize, they start their hike up the dirt-packed Tower Trail. It isn’t long before we come across the sight of toppled trees, what the crew calls “leaners,” off in the woods. SGPA treasurer Rebecca Taddei says that in an ordinary year, they might take down about 80 unstable or fallen trees. This year, so far, the number is over 400 and counting. “The trees all dominoed,” Taddei says. “One went down, hit one… and you get these big clusters of trees and branches.”

While we walk, heavier gear is driven in a cart up the Tower Trail to the junction with the orange-blazed trail. Here one crew peels off to the west. The rest of us hike farther in on the orange. At first the way is level, but soon the trail climbs a steep, rocky slope. Those carrying the chain saws are winded, but the weather this morning is a blessing: overcast and cool after a long, humid summer. And in spite of the hard work—or maybe because of it—people say they’re having fun.

SGPA volunteers are Giant lovers from all over: Hamden, Wallingford, Prospect, Milford, North Haven, Norwalk, Bridgeport. Many tell me they’re here partly for “selfish” reasons. “I live nearby, and this is my main hiking spot, so it gets me out here,” Taddei says.

Volunteer Karen Davis says she enjoys being “part of something that’s… a team effort. It’s an unqualified good.” State worker Evan Martucci is along, too, putting in his own time after working the state’s cleanup effort during the week. He lives nearby, and the park is essentially his back yard. “If I can do anything to help out and make it open faster, I want to do that,” he says.

At the junction with the white-blazed trail, two more crews head off. “We’re gonna stay on the orange, and we’re gonna start leap-frogging and see how far we get,” DeGennaro announces. We traverse a ledge—the Giant’s right hip—then dip into a peaceful ravine I know from previous hikes, a quiet, cool spot in the heart of the park. Here, we approach a wall of rock where the trail is blocked by several fallen trees.

The remaining two- and three-person crews begin cutting and clearing their small sections of trail, then move past one another to the next spot that needs attention—what DeGennaro has called “leap-frogging.” The work is slow. DeGennaro and 18-year volunteer Lonny Gee, each on different teams, rev up their chainsaws and get to work on the biggest obstructions. DeGennaro is dealing with a complicated tangle of slender trunks, and he pauses several times to calculate his next move.

All 13 of the SGPA’s chainsaw operators have taken a state-required certification course, and they know the risks. “Maybe the most important thing about the class is realizing that you can’t always predict how a tree is going to react once it’s cut,” DeGennaro says. The state’s contractor will come in to remove trees too big for the volunteers to handle.

Once big cuts are made, other crew members step in to cut smaller branches and throw or drag pieces off the trail. DeGennaro estimates that since May, the Sunday morning crew has managed to clear about 40% of the trails that are blocked. But that doesn’t mean they’ve completed 40% of the work. Some of the worst-hit trails are still to come. “I pulled all the teams off the violet [trail] because the going was so slow,” he says.

That’s why the big question on everyone’s mind is so hard to answer. No one knows for sure when the Giant will reopen. DEEP spokesperson Chris Collibee says it’s possible portions of the park could open before the SGPA’s work is done, but he emphasizes the park is “simply not safe for visitors as of yet… in any way, shape or form” due to all those unstable trees and branches. In the longer term, he says, a master plan for redesigning the picnic and parking areas will invite public input.

Whether the park opens sooner or later, the SGPA is looking ahead. One crew is out today reblazing a trail that lost many of its markers on fallen trees, and Taddei mentions another initiative on the agenda: a run at the park’s invasive species. If every storm cloud has its silver lining, this one may be that it’s brought the SGPA so many new volunteers. For now, at least, the trail crews are at capacity, which means that although progress is slow, it’s also steady.

Sleeping Giant Park Association
www.sgpa.org

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter at KathyLeonardCzepiel.com. Her favorite New Haven scene is a packed summer concert on the Green with dinner from the food trucks, and she loves that there’s always something new to discover here.

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