Going straight to Hell (Hollow)
While tramping along the Quinebaug Trail in Voluntown one frosty morning recently, our group approached several heaps of what appeared to be poop from a very big horse, or a much larger creature.
“Maybe a brontosaurus?” I wondered.
Actually, the heaps were anthills built by Allegheny mound ants, explained Maggie Jones, director emeritus of the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center in Mystic.
These common, native insects, which prey on a variety of bugs, first inject formic acid into plants, shrubs and even small trees, to kill them and create a clearing. Then the ants, which dig tunnels beneath the soil, gather sand and thatch to construct above-ground hills that help insulate their eggs and larvae.
“The mounds also house mites, beetles, crickets and flies, which feed on ant brood, and butterfly larva,” Maggie said.
Luckily for us, Allegheny mound ants, which can deliver painful bites if disturbed, are dormant in winter.
We stepped gingerly past the site while continuing our six-mile hike through one of Pachaug State Forest’s most distinctive sections: Hell Hollow.
Likely given that name because the area is shaped like an enormous bowl, and because colonial farmers found the rocky, swampy soil devilishly difficult to till, Hell Hollow has inspired a number of ghostly, ghastly legends.
One tale involves the separate deaths of three children born to Lucy and Gilbert Reynolds of Hell Hollow Road in the late 1800s. According to various accounts, the bodies of the first two youngsters to die were buried in the family cemetery, but for some reason, the last child, an infant named Maud, who passed away in 1890, was buried in a field across the street. Some say her ghost continues to haunt the area.
Turns out Hell Hollow is among dozens of sites in Connecticut with nether-worldly names. There are Devil’s Dens in Franklin, Plainfield, Monroe, Weston and Sterling; Devil's Backbones in Bethlehem, Bristol, Cheshire and Plymouth; Devil's Footprints in Branford and Montville; Devil's Rocks in Old Saybrook and Portland; Devil's Kitchens in Burlington and Thomaston; Devil's Hopyard in East Haddam; Devil's Meditations in Middlebury and Watertown; Devil's Island on the Quinebaug River in Danielson; Devil's Gap in Brookfield; Devil's Gorge in Weston; Devil's Jump in Derby; Devil's Plunge in Morris; Devil's Pulpit in Hamden; Devil's Mouth in Redding; Devil's Wharf in Deep River; Devil's Dripping Pan, at Branch Brook in Watertown; Devil's Belt, on Long Island Sound at the New York border; Satan's Kingdoms in Bethany and New Hartford; Satan's Ridge in New Hartford; and Hell Hole in Simsbury.
Our sojourn proved more heavenly that hellish. Following the blue-blazed trail off Hell Hollow Road, we passed through groves of white pine, spruce, and hemlock within the predominantly oak-hickory forest.
“There is much to notice in New England's cold, winter landscape, with or without snow, when you can see the forest, and the forest floor, rocks and other features through the trees,” Maggie noted.
“Mosses literally spring to life, like sponges, when there is water. This time of year, damp ravines, tree trunks and rocks glow a rainbow of greens with different types of mosses — soft hair-cap moss, feather moss and others covering them like luxuriant upholstery,” she added.
Lichens also thrive in winter.
“These long-lived organisms can colonize bare rock and provide a substrate for soil formation. Some fix nitrogen, they are eaten by slugs and other invertebrates and mammals, used by more than 45 different species of birds, and also flying squirrels, for nest materials,” Maggie reported.
We found several specimens of a frilly lichen called fringed wrinkle-lichen (Tuckermanopsis Americana), named after 19th-century botanist Edward Tuckerman, who did most of his collecting in what is now called Tuckerman Ravine at New Hampshire’s Mount Washington.
After looping south to secluded and serene Phillips Pond, we switched over to a section of the Pachaug Trail.
“Pachaug” is an Algonquin word for “bend in the river”; “Quinebaug” means “long pond.” Both accurately suggest wet conditions in the state forest, which spreads out over 27,000 acres in Voluntown, North Stonington, Preston, Griswold, Plainfield and Sterling. We sidestepped puddles and crossed several small streams that flow through Pachaug’s undulating terrain.
The state created the forest in the 1920s after purchasing more than 1,000 acres that had formerly housed a textile mill. The remaining acreage was added during the Great Depression in the 1930s, when thousands of young workers signed up through the Civilian Conservation Corps to plant trees, clear trails and build campgrounds in Pachaug and throughout the country.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a 21st-century version of the CCC?
Both the Pachug and Quinebaug trails intersect with Hell Hollow Road near Hell Hollow Pond, where there is a small parking lot. On this midweek winter day, our small group had the parking lot and forest to ourselves — perfect for social distancing during the pandemic.
As always, stay safe and stay active.
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Every winter, dozens of bald eagles migrate from northern New England to the lower Connecticut River to catch fish and hunt waterfowl; for decades, friends and I have ventured out in kayaks this time of year to view them.