I don't think I've ever gone on a hike to a place with a feature that was described as "as thick as dog hair."
But it's the perfect description for the magical place that is an Atlantic white cedar forest. The trees are native to the Atlantic coast, from Maine to Georgia, and grow in low, wet areas.
There are a few of these rare forests open to the public, including Old Saybrook's Great Cedars Conservation Area — home to the state's largest specimen, at 75 feet high with a circumference of nearly seven feet. Chester's 380-acre Cedar Swamp is the largest and one of the state's eight National Natural Landmarks — a compilation of important geological and ecological sites in Connecticut.
Having written about both several years ago, I figured my trips to the state's native Atlantic white cedar forests were complete. And then I received an e-mail from Rod Parlee, chairman of the Bolton Conservation Commission, about joining a cross-country skiing expedition across a frozen Upper Bolton Lake to another stand of Atlantic white cedar. I was stunned. He invited me to see for myself and measure a specimen that he thought could be one of the state's largest.
A group of us went snowshoeing and cross-country skiing to the site last week. We measured a large specimen at the northern edge of the stand. Although Parlee was hoping for the gold medal, it turned out the tree is the fourth-largest measured in the state. Then it was time to cross the ice to the stand of Atlantic white cedar, which makes a nearly perfect green circle along the northeastern banks of the lake.
Viewed from the frozen tundra of early March, the stand of cedars resembles Sweden's Lapland with trees of all shapes and sizes poking out of the ice and snow. A stand of cedar is my favorite ecosystem in the state, but it is also one of the wettest – and buggiest in the warmer months. But this winter has frozen even the soggiest of boggy places.
We reached the outer edges of the stand and, with the sun setting, the atmosphere turned spooky and mysterious. You could only peer a few feet into the forest due to the density of the trees. The cedars appear almost like ghosts, with the light green lichen on their reddish bark set off against the snowcover.
I returned the following day to explore the forest in daylight. After a lengthy walk across the ice from Bolton to Tolland (the borders actually meet in the middle of Upper Bolton Lake), the forest expanse is stunning, taking up much of the viewscape as you walk toward it. I entered the forest and ventured a little way while listening to the "who-cooks-for-you" calls of the barred owl and the cold north wind whistling through the trees. A bit of natural world paradise few are able to enjoy.
Parlee said the lakes – Lower, Middle and Upper Bolton — are being studied and he hopes a pact between Bolton, Coventry, Tolland and Vernon will protect the bodies of water and the forest.
"This rare and magnificent Atlantic white cedar forest is the most unique forest I have ever witnessed, he said. "It could very well be hundreds of years old. The preservation of this forest and the surrounding cedar swamp within the watershed needs to be permanently protected from development of any kind in perpetuity ... We are all stakeholders in protecting this rare forest."
And the protection of one of my favorite ecosystems in Connecticut.