Taking Its Course

Taking Its Course

The centerpiece of the Wepawaug Conservation Area is the Wepawaug River. As a hiker, you can more or less follow its retreat from a reservoir at the edge of Orange to its gentler meeting with Race Brook closer to the town center. But the main trail entrance is actually closer to the middle of those two points.

From the parking lot, I took a crushed stone path down a gentle slope surrounded by hemlocks, which provided shade and color—a dark, fine-toothed green particularly inviting in late winter, when the taller hardwoods are still gray and bare. At the bottom, the river curved into view from the north and kept visibly curving as if it were on its way back inland, then turned sharply against a wooded bluff to resume its course south. On the Wepawaug trail map, the turn creates two sides of a near perfect triangle, marking the rough center of 36 acres designated for “passive use”—hiking with or without a dog—by the town.

But it’s also the center of a longer patchwork of land designations that have over time made it possible to go farther up- and downriver, deferring by a good afternoon’s length the moment when you step back into civilization. The Orange and Red Trails together form the main traverse, amounting to a good one and a quarter miles. (Two more trails, Yellow and Blue, form a loop of about a third of a mile.) From the hard bend in the river, I crossed a sturdy wooden footbridge to follow the orange blazes north. The trail climbed gently and emerged from hemlock cover onto the top of a ridge, where I could see how delicately arranged such open spaces can be. Cars on the Wilbur Cross Parkway were visible about 500 feet to the left, while a clearing belonging to Camp Cedarcrest—a nonprofit summer camp for youth groups that also offers its facilities for rent to private adult groups—was stacked with building materials to the right. The trail then descended to follow a small brook, almost to the point where it emerges from beneath the parkway.

Turning eastward, the trail skirted an upscale housing development with just a few widely spaced homes. I later realized I had passed within yodeling distance of a couple of discrete parcels held by the Orange Land Trust. Collectively labeled Wepawaug Meadows, those holdings are mixed in with the residential plots, somewhere beyond the backyards that line the conservation area proper, suggesting a long game of tic tac toe in which land conservators and developers sometimes drop their Xs between one another’s Os. The trail then hopscotched around “No Trespassing” signs (marking the border of Camp Cedarcrest) to approach the river again, and here you could see an earlier chapter in the history of encroachment between nature and civilization. An old stone wall suggested a farm once carved out of earlier woods, then overgrown by these ones.

At the same spot, a section of the trail had also been remanded to nature. It was two or three inches under a vernal pool, safely passable only by forging a clumsy path through whippy underbrush or balancing on mossy logs. I chose the logs. Then, sneakers squelching, I arrived at a formation dubbed The Ravine, where a younger, wilder Wepawaug picks and sometimes surges its way downhill between steep embankments on both sides. The river here is strewn with rocks and fallen trees, interrupted by jutting islets of bedrock. The Orange Trail goes up and down the embankment to the left, sometimes providing access to the water and sometimes providing an overlook clear across to the embankment on the right.

The Ravine is actually more dramatic for its proximity to Route 34, which is the effective end of the trail. The river emerges from a large tunnel under the road, and I could see how the carving of its own passage here would have discouraged development until the Land Trust purchased it in 1983. But even here, rocks that look like they had been pulled out of the ground and discarded are in fact remains of human structures, in this case the foundation of a mill used to manufacture clothing in the mid-1800s.

Backtracking past the wooden bridge, I continued onto the Red Trail, which tracks more closely with the river. For the first few hundred feet, the trail and the river are side by side, the one just an inch or two uphill from the other. The water moves quickly here, the current bounding along the surface to show how fast it is. Then the river widens, braiding and braiding again into channels with an island big enough to have its own patch of woods between them.

Shortly after that, the Wepawaug Conservation Area becomes the Kowal Nature Preserve. This parcel was donated to the Orange Land Trust, according to this trail guide, by a “fondly remembered former mailman” named John Kowal. The small field looked like farmland in the process of returning to nature. Nest boxes had been posted throughout. On the stretch of trail that approaches the field, the surrounding trees were, for reasons I couldn’t fathom, growing at a slant, as if accustomed to a stiff wind coming from the river. It suggested a higher than normal demand for the nest boxes, the branches being unable to provide birds with a more comfortable angle of repose.

The trail then re-entered the woods and curved in the direction of a residential cul-de-sac to signal that the path had come to an end. Simultaneously, I realized the river was no longer visible to my right. On the trail map, the southern border of the Kowal Nature Reserve is formed by the confluence of the Wepawaug River and Race Brook, which would have been coming from the east, more or less in front of me. I could see houses on a bluff in that direction and figured Race Brook must be right along the bluff, so I decided to chance it.

Off-trail, between me and Race Brook, was marshy ground in various stages of pooling, with nothing in the way of stepping stones. A vernal stream that was definitely not Race Brook but may as well have been blocked my way, so I turned around.

On the Red Trail again, I retraced my steps to the bank of the Wepawaug. Congratulating myself, I then began picking my way along the bank, thinking I could follow the river to The Sound this way if I felt like it. But what looked like navigable underbrush turned out to be thorny underbrush, and as I progressed it kept getting bigger and denser, piercing my resolve. It was a reminder that even as circumscribed by roadways and buildings as a natural place can be, it’s still a force of nature.

Written and photographed by David Zukowski.

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