"This is the jewel right here."
With that simple statement, Christina Clayton, president of the Old Lyme Land Trust, summed up the group's newest addition: the John Lohmann Connecticut River Preserve.
The land is a stunning patch of forest, stone walls, meadows, salt marshes and panoramic views of the lower Connecticut River and Lord Cove.
As Clayton makes her statement, she and I are standing on top of the craggy granite ledges and boulders known as "whaleback," because of its resemblance to a breeching whale. The views south include Goose Island, where each year hundreds of thousands of swallows gather in the late summer.
A view to the north includes the marinas and church steeples of Essex, and in between a waterfront view that was once reserved for boat passengers or those who had a house along this beautiful section of Old Lyme near the mouth of the Connecticut River.
Not anymore. Thanks to the cooperative effort of the trust, The Nature Conservancy and the John Lohmann Revocable Trust, more than 40 acres, including whaleback, will be preserved.
The preserve is a final gift from Lohmann, one of the founding members of the land trust who helped to preserve hundreds of acres across this shoreline town. The trust now owns more than 800 acres.
As we walked the recently blazed trails past old cedar forests and perfectly built stone walls, Clayton noted that when Lohmann was in England during World War II, he fell in love with the countryside — the sheep farms with the ribbons of stone walls and huge trees. He recreated that setting on his Old Lyme acreage.
"He loved how all the English areas were accessible to the public," Clayton said. "He worked this property single-handedly for 40 years and created a park."
A trail up a fairly steep hill through dead or dying cedar trees brings visitors to a break in the massive stone wall. Although Clayton had talked about the park-like setting minutes before, the view still makes you raise your eyebrows in surprise. Across the "upper field" are huge old trees and under them are nothing but goldenrod and ferns. In the horizon is the sparkling blue of the Connecticut River.
Old farm roads circle the field and one cut diagonally across, linking up with a trail down to the "lower field" and river plain that eventually lead to whaleback.
The lower field is the highlight of the journey, with a trail along the salt marshes and cove to whaleback. Like a natural stone jetty, visitors can follow whaleback out to the waters of Lord Cove.
Frogard Ryan, executive director of the conservancy and an Old Lyme resident, called the lower Connecticut River and the lands around it "precious" and the preserve a "treasure for everyone who visits it."
Nathan Frohling, the conservancy's director of Connecticut coastal and marine initiatives, said public access can only "help deepen interest" in protecting rare coastal land and tidal marshes.
I never knew John Lohmann, but apparently he knew we needed these open spaces, especially along a crowded shoreline. He knew we needed places where ordinary people can be inspired by the splendor of the natural world.
To get to the preserve, take I-95 to exit 70. Follow Route 156 north to Coult Lane. The trailhead is located at 33 Coult Lane.