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Wash away 2020’s woes with an icy plunge

For better than half a century, madcap celebrants have kicked off the New Year by running from Mystic and leaping into the frigid water of Fishers Island Sound — a shared splash of jubilation and zaniness that prevailed during more carefree times.

Friends and I plan to take the plunge again Friday — not amid a boisterous throng of noisemaker-blowing revelers wearing party hats, but individually, or in very small, socially distanced groups.

Amby Burfoot of Mystic, 1968 winner of the Boston Marathon, who was in a group of three pals who spontaneously dove in at the first New Year’s Day swim in 1969, explained why Friday’s event will be different.

“The Jan. 1 run-swim has been a joy-filled community celebration of our health, prosperity, friendships, and optimism. In these COVID times, we must evolve by dropping the community gathering. But our optimism remains, and we hope that Jan. 1, 2022, will bring us back together again, more joyful than ever,” he told me.

Amen.

While the pandemic upended virtually every aspect of life for most of 2020, the inconvenience we outdoor enthusiasts experienced — closed beaches, parks and campgrounds, and canceled sporting events — cannot compare to the anguish so many others suffered: lost loved ones, lost jobs, lost hope.

Yet many of us endured, finding solace in simple pleasures: a walk in the woods, bike ride or kayak/canoe paddle.

Rather than dwelling on the 2020’s travails, I’d prefer to look back at the year’s rewarding highlights.

Soon after the seriousness of coronavirus became evident last March, when we all were introduced to the need for keeping our distance, washing hands frequently and wearing face masks, friends and I began weekly outings to off-the-beaten path destinations. By exploring these small nature preserves and wildlife sanctuaries, we avoided popular parks that frequently had to bar their gates because of overcrowding.

Led by Maggie Jones, director emeritus of the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center in Mystic, our small group wound up hiking more than 100 miles of trails in Colchester, East Haddam, East Lyme, Essex, Franklin, Groton, Ledyard, Lyme, Meriden, Montville, New London, North Stonington, Old Lyme, Salem, Scotland, Stonington, Voluntown, Westbrook and Westerly. 

Maggie pointed out scores of birds, including pileated woodpeckers, bald eagles, great blue herons, red-tailed hawks and barred owls. She showed us how to distinguish a scarlet oak from a white oak from a red oak (it’s all in the bark), taught us all about mosses and lichens, and had us munching on chicken of the woods mushrooms, ramps, Indian cucumber roots, staghorn sumac, spicebush berries and a smorgasbord of other wild edibles.

Betsy Graham took most of the stunning photographs that accompanied my columns. 

We hiked past waterfalls at Ayers Gap in Franklin and Devil’s Hopyard in East Haddam; over scenic ridges at Meriden’s Lamentation Mountain and Voluntown’s Mount Misery; alongside pristine rivers at Lyme’s Pleasant Valley Preserve and Salem’s Walden Preserve; and in magnificent forests and wildflower meadows throughout southeastern Connecticut.

Former state geologist Ralph Lewis also joined us for a hike through the 201-acre Candlewood Hill Wildlife Management Area in Groton, explaining the difference between granite and gneiss, and how to distinguish a glacial erratic from a glacial boulder. 

Many of the properties we visited are owned or managed by various land trusts, and along the way we met a number of dedicated volunteers who donated time and money to preserve these treasured parcels and keeping them open to hikers, birdwatchers and others who appreciate the value of open space. Shoutouts to the Avalonia Land Conservancy, Connecticut Audubon, Connecticut Forest & Park Association, East Lyme & Niantic Land Conservation Trust, Friends of Oswegatchie Nature Preserve, Groton Open Space Association, Hopkington (R.I.) Land Trust, Lyme Land Conservation Trust, The Nature Conservancy, North Stonington Citizens Land Alliance, Old Lyme Land Trust, Salem Land Trust, Stonington Land Trust, Waterford Land Trust and Westerly Land Trust, among others.

While most of our journeys were on foot, we also took to the water on a number of occasions, including a 38-mile, multi-day kayak voyage on the Pawcatuck River from its source at Worden Pond in South Kingston, R.I., to its mouth at Little Narragansett Bay between Westerly and Pawcatuck.

Organized by Tom Sanford and his son, Rick, this excursion had us paddling through narrow, serpentine passages, past historic mill villages and along serene stretches that fully justified the waterway’s recent designation as a federal Wild and Scenic River as part of the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed.

I also kayaked more than 100 miles over several outings with my son, Tom, and various friends, to favorite destinations that included Fishers Island, where we observed seals last winter; the Connecticut River, where we watched eagles in winter and hundreds of thousands of swallows in late summer; and the Pachaug River, which opens up into a series of scenic ponds.

Happily, miles and miles of trails, rivers and shoreline extend throughout our region, so there are plenty of new places to explore in the coming year.

Here’s hoping all of us enjoy a safe, healthy and active 2021.

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