Monday, December 5, 2016

Hoffman Preserve: Off the beaten path

By Beth Sullivan
The Hoffman Preserve in Stonington is one of Avalonia’s most beloved preserves. At almost 200 acres, it is nearly the largest, surpassed only by the Pine Swamp complex in Ledyard. Many decades ago, an earlier owner planted portions of the property with various species of conifers and evergreens to remind him of his favored forest areas in the north. There are areas of lofty Pines, Spruce, Hemlock and some Larch, each “plantation’ area with a unique feel. There are uplands and lowlands, vernal wetlands, and a small pond that holds water most all year long. Many of the special features are easily visible from one of the several trails.

Stewards walk the line

As stewards we will walk the trails any number of times during the year as part of general reviews and to do basic maintenance, but we don’t usually go too far off the trails unless there is a specific need to do so. However once a year we need to walk the boundaries, all the outer edges of a preserve, way off the trail, no matter what the conditions. We chose these last nice days to get out and explore all the corners of Hoffman Preserve, find the boundaries, and explore places I had never seen.
As we posted signs, we were grateful for stone walls marking the boundaries.

The frontage along Route 201 is highlighted by beautifully made stone walls, a true New England photo opportunity. The look is enhanced by the deep dark greens of the Hemlock ‘plantation’ that runs along behind them. Even in winter there is welcome green.
From there the boundary turns westward and goes upland into the deciduous woods. There are Oaks and many Beech trees, including one massive specimen that can be seen from the yellow trail. As we continued on our boundary walk we silently thanked the old landowners and farmers who built the stone walls we followed and were grateful that when the land was divided the divisions occurred along these walls.
This huge Beech has probably seen many decades of walkers through this woodland.

Along the south border we ran into the Bennet Yard, an old cemetery that is included within the boundaries of the Hoffman Preserve. The old headstones tell their stories, and the Yard can be reached on the blue trail. From there the boundary walls get harder to follow, and they are no longer straight. At this point we had to cut into the preserve a bit to get around a thicket and found ourselves in an amazing tumble of glacial till. There were rocks all dropped and scattered, all sizes and piled, and deep holes to catch a foot or provide a home for any number of small creatures. Some look like they were carefully balanced by some great hand. Near the bottom of the slope where we were able to pick up another stone wall, we discovered a lovely, healthy young Hemlock grove. It would be a perfect place for a small owl to perch ( note to self: get back there during the winter to take a look).
The Bennet Yard is a family cemetery with several generations honored within the walls.

In places large rocks are balanced as if they had been carefully placed by a very large hand.

Streams flow to the Mystic River

As land continued to drop, we noticed small seeps and springs from the uplands beginning to converge and flow downward to the western boundary. It is easy to understand the concept of a watershed when you follow the water trail. Find a place where the water seems to collect or emerge from the ground. After all the rain, there were small creeks running from several upland areas. They stream down hill, join and gather momentum. In several areas they pass under the wall and go off the property until they meet the larger Whitford Brook. We followed that western wall and could hear and glimpse this swift running waterway, a major source of the Mystic River.
In several areas the Hemlocks have died. They may be removed to make room for new healthy growth. 

Following the boundary walls and going off the trails, allowed us to experience parts of this lovely preserve not frequently noticed. We took down old Mashantucket Land Trust signs and replaced them with Avalonia Land Conservancy signs. We checked to make sure there were no encroachments along the property lines. We discovered one geocache. We discovered a new hemlock grove and a place where the pileated woodpecker did some major work on several big dead trees. We assessed where the habitats were healthy and areas where some management might be required to help restore the forest. We watched the progress of water from ground source to where it begins a march to the ocean.
Pileated Woodpeckers leave their mark as they seek insects in decaying snags.
In 1995 Mashantucket Land Trust was renamed Avalonia Land Conservancy. Some of the old signs still remain.
We didn’t get it all done in one day. But we look forward to the next leg.

 Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

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