If you have any interest in the natural or cultural features that give the state texture and historical context, then spend a couple of hours with the Pinchot Sycamore.
Yes, it is a tree; a single tree growing in Simsbury beside the Farmington River, with a picnic table under its canopy.
Nobody knows exactly how old it is, but it is almost certainly two centuries old, and it may be three centuries old. It is named for Gifford Pinchot, a Simsbury native who became the first head of the U.S. Forest Service, a governor of Pennsylvania and co-founder of what today is the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.
The Pinchot Sycamore is an ideal memorial. It has enormous presence, and it practically compels visitors to think about the past. What was life in Connecticut like when it was a sapling?
It was last measured in November 1998, when it was 26 feet in circumference and 95 feet high, with a canopy that averaged 140 feet -- about half a football field. Any of five limbs spreading from the trunk would be sizeable trees themselves.
It so dominates its piece of the world that to say it is awe-inspiring won't further cheapen a much-cheapened phrase.
It is the state's largest tree of any kind, it is the largest sycamore in New England and, latest information suggests, it may be tied with a tree in Bath, Va., for honors as the largest sycamore in the United States. It appears to be healthy.
``I couldn't find a sign of any holes in the trunk,'' said Ed Richardson of Glastonbury, an authority on notable trees with the Connecticut Botanical Society who measured the tree. ``A lot of big sycamores are hollow, but I poked around and couldn't find any evidence of rot or holes.''
It also has managed to survive suburban sprawl, unlike many other old trees and homes in Connecticut. By now, it easily could be bathed in neon light. Instead it retains its dignity in a setting that is largely pastoral to this day.
Sycamores, native to the eastern United States, are numerous in the Farmington River Valley and are easily recognized. Their upper limbs, especially, develop a splotchy appearance when sheets of dark outer bark fall off, exposing lighter-colored inner bark.
The limbs also have a tendency to veer abruptly at sharp and odd angles. Sometimes a branch will emerge from the trunk horizontally, suddenly shoot skyward, then thrust sideways and downward. A leafless sycamore serves nicely as the stereotypical spooky tree of Halloween scenes.
Sycamores love water. The Pinchot Sycamore grows beside the Route 185 bridge over the Farmington, making it is easily accessible by car. But to make an event of a visit and give a nod to the river that helps nourish the tree, why not arrive by canoe? The many riverbank sycamores you see along the way will prepare you to appreciate the Pinchot sycamore at the finish.
Pinchot Sycamore Park includes a ramp to load and unload small boats. Upriver, there are numerous places to begin a canoe run.
It is 8.6 miles from Route 4 in Farmington to the Pinchot Sycamore, or 6.3 miles from the Old Farms Road bridge to the sycamore. From either point, the canoeist will find easily navigable flatwater. Allow two or more hours to paddle from Old Farms Road, at least three from Route 4.
On a cool April afternoon, we paddled from Old Farms Road, where there is room for one or two cars to park by the bridge over the Farmington, just off Route 10. This section of the Farmington is suburban, and you will glide silently by golf courses and homes and under busy Route 44, where your pace will contrast sharply with the whiz of east-west car traffic.
We saw wood ducks and great blue herons on our outing. You can count on kingfishers, which will chatter away as you approach. Perhaps you will flush an osprey, as we did. You will almost certainly notice trees with their lower bark stripped, evidence of beavers. The Heublein Tower can be seen atop the ridge to the right.
When you reach the iron bridge at Route 185, you will have reached the Pinchot Sycamore. It won't be hard to find. If the picnic table is unclaimed, grab a seat, and while you have lunch, wonder how many before you have dined in the shade of this tree.
PINCHOT SYCAMORE PARK IN SIMSBURY
Location: Route 185, at bridge over the Farmington River.
Size: About 2 acres.
Attendance: No records kept.
Hours: Dawn to sunset.
Activities: Nature study, picnicking, canoeing, fishing.
Handicapped Access: No formal handicapped access, but site is accessible by car, and terrain is flat and grassy.
Ownership: Town of Simsbury.
YOU, TOO, CAN CANOE THE PINCHOT SYCAMORE
If you don't have a canoe and would like to paddle the Farmington River to the Pinchot Sycamore, consider a canoe rental. A number of Connecticut outfitters and boat dealers rent canoes.
At Collinsville Canoe & Kayak in Canton, a canoe, paddles and life jackets can be rented for $35 a day. Foam blocks to mount the canoe atop a car are included, and clerks will help tie the boat on. Kayak rentals also are available; a solo kayak is $35 a day; a tandem kayak is $45 a day. The telephone number is 860-693-6977.
Main Stream Canoes & Kayaks in New Hartford offers canoe rentals with or without transportation to the river. Main Stream will drop you off at the launch area off Route 4 in Farmington and pick you up downriver at the Pinchot Sycamore. A rental with paddles and life jackets and the transportation service is $55. Rental only is $45. Transportation only is $15. There is no extra charge for life jackets for children under 13.
A weekend solo kayak rental with transportation is $40, and $30 for the rental only. A tandem kayak is $50 with transportation, and $40 for the rental only.
The Main Stream telephone number is 860-693-6791.
ONE OF TWO BIGGEST IN U.S.
The Pinchot Sycamore, already the largest known sycamore tree in New England, is in line to be co-champion sycamore in the United States.
American Forests, a private conservation group, keeps track of the largest known specimens of America's trees, awarding individual trees points based on circumference, height and size of canopy. It just announced a new listing of champion species, identifying a tree in Bath, Va., as the largest sycamore in the United States.
That tree, which displaced one in Ohio that was disqualified because it had two trunks, was awarded 455 points. A recent measurement of the Pinchot Sycamore awarded it 454, though it was not offered for consideration in the latest listing of champions.
According to American Forests, in the event of a difference of fewer than five points between two trees, they are co-champions. Barring the discovery of an even bigger sycamore, the organization said, the next listing in 2001 will recognize the Pinchot Sycamore as national co-champion.