If you want to explore an Atlantic cedar swamp, there are a few things to keep in mind.
First, you are going to get wet — especially during this year of no winter. Second, if you are afraid of things that go bump in the night or your imagination gets the best of you, the atmosphere of the swamp is one spooky, mysterious place. And lastly, there are no trails, no boardwalks and no maps. You can enter the wilds, but there are no guarantees you will return to civilization.
That said, there are few places in this state that are such an absolute joy to explore than cedar swamps. And within the heart of the Cockaponset State Forest is the king of them all — Chester Cedar Swamp. The largest bog of its kind in the state, the swamp, in Chester, is on the list of National Natural Landmarks — a compilation of important geological and ecological sites in Connecticut.
At 380 acres, the swamp is massive. But visitors really don't need to go into the heart of the swamp to understand its complexity and inner eeriness. The aptly named Cedar Swamp Road, a seasonal road through this portion of the 16,000-acre wilderness — Connecticut's second-largest state forest — takes visitors along the eastern and southern edge of the swamp. Despite its proximity to Route 9, there are few sounds heard here except for the occasional roar of a plane's engine from the nearby Chester Airport.
Visitors need to travel about a mile along the road for the easiest access point into the swamp. The state has done a good job keeping the upland forest from swallowing up the swamp by thinning the woods. A jumble of rocks and blue surveying tape off to the right mark a path that will lead you through the upland oak forest to the outer edges of the swamp.
As you walk into this old world, second-growth cedar swamp, the browns and grays of the dead of winter are replaced by the bright green of sphagnum moss, dark green of mountain laurel and the reddish-orange of the peeling cedar bark. When your boots begin to sink into the mossy, half-frozen bog, you have entered the Chester Cedar Swamp.
As you hop over small pools of water from mossy hummock to lichen-covered log, the air temperature drops and the only sounds you hear are your boots slogging through the bog. The deeper you explore, the more cedars appear, leaving the hemlocks and mountain laurels behind. Soon you are totally surrounded by the magnificent trees.
The cedars are almost like ghosts in the swamp with the light green lichen on their reddish bark seemingly shimmering in the misty bog. The miniature sequoia-like trees with their ramrod-straight trunks and high evergreen boughs stand like a row of soliders on parade as far as you can see through the swamp.
Chester Cedar Swamp is wet. Chester Cedar Swamp is spooky. And there's no other place I would rather get soaked or scared in this state.
Route 9 to Exit 6 in Chester. Travel west along Route 148 and take a left on Baker Road and left on Cedar Swamp Road. Park in a small lot next to the gate. Visit http://www.ct.gov/dep/lib/dep/stateparks/rec_info/snowmobilemaps/cockaponsetcedarswampsb.pdf for a map of the area. Peter Marteka can be reached at 860-647-5365 or firstname.lastname@example.org or at The Courant, 200 Adams St., Manchester, CT 06040.
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