It's nice to walk down the beach this time of year. The days are bright and sunny and sort of mild. The water gently laps along the shore. Despite the cold north wind, you feel the urge to lose your socks and shoes and feel the grains between your toes.
But along the banks of the Fenton River in the Gurleyville section of Mansfield?
That is one of the strange sights as you walk along the Blue-Blazed Nipmuck Trail winding its way along the clear waters of the Fenton River. I call this the "mill bookend" hike since the starting point is the Chaffeeville Silk Mill with the intact stone Gurleyville Gristmill — one of only a few still surviving in New England — at the other end.
The Fenton is one of the most scenic rivers in eastern Connecticut as it begins its journey from the Nipmuck State Forest in Willington to Mansfield Hollow Lake. Much of the riverbank and surrounding forest in this 1.5-mile stretch of the river is protected by theU.S. Army Corps of Engineersand Mansfield Hollow State Park. When the trail turns away from a busy Chaffeeville Road, visitors will find a solitary and peaceful journey through hemlock groves where mallard ducks float past on the lively river and mill ruins lie scattered around.
The bookend trail begins at the ruins of the Chaffeeville Silk Mill. A variety of silk mills were drawn to the banks of the powerful Fenton River. And as is typical with most mills, they came, they produced textiles for a period, and they burned or were torn down. All that remains of the Chaffeeville Mill is a huge rock dam and several smaller foundations.
The Nipmuck follows the banks of the river so closely, you will find out exactly just how clear the water is if you are not paying attention. Much of the trail climbs over masses of roots, so watch your footing as you navigate the first half-mile or so until you reach a bridge.
Friom the other side of the bridge, visitors will find themselves walking trails that resemble a path along the beach. The trail enters a hemlock and white pine forest along the banks of the river and then follows ribbons of deep sand. After tripping over roots and sliding through patches of mud, it's a strange sensation to travel through the alien sand.
The highlight of the trip is the river itself with its clear waters rushing past. A large fallen tree creates a waterfall in the middle of the river. The bottom of the river is covered with small and medium-size pebbles clearly seen through the sun glimmering off the surface. Huge pines shade deep pools in the river as a fish jumps nearby.
After emerging from the forest, civilization appears again in the form of an old miller's cottage where four-term Connecticut Gov. Wilbur Lucius Cross was born. His family operated the nearby Gurleyville Gristmill for years. According to the Joshua's Tract Conservation and Historic Trust, which owns the site, the mill on this site dates to 1723 with the present stone mill built in 1830s.
The mill, open for tours May through October, is rare because it contains all the original mill equipment from when it was built. Visitors can see the grinding stones, gears, flour sifter and the water wheel in the basement that took the power of the Fenton and turned grain from local farmers into flour.
With the bridge across the Fenton River being replaced, your mill bookend journey comes to an end. But it is quite a trip into the past and across the sands of time.
Route 195 and turn on Chaffeeville Road a few miles south of the University of Connecticut. Look for a parking area shortly after the intersection with Mulberry Road. Questions or column suggestions are welcome. Peter Marteka can be reached at 860-647-5365 or email@example.com or at The Courant, 200 Adams St., Manchester, CT 06040.