A Hike Among Fallen Giants In Cathedral Pines

Giants Still Remain

Although many trees fell during the tornadoes of 1989, there are still some large specimens of white pines at the Cathedral Pines Preserve. (Peter Marteka / January 15, 2014)

pmarteka@courant.com

I'm not sure why I have avoided Cathedral Pines over the years. Maybe it was knowing that 25 years ago a trio of tornadoes devastated the grove of white pines in Cornwall that dated back to the Revolutionary War and were as close to an old-growth forest as there is in New England.

Last week, I finally set out on a journey to the famous white pines, passing by a farm where buffalo were grazing on seemingly endless fields and past skiers descending the slopes of Mohawk Mountain before arriving at Cathedral Pines, a 42-acre Nature Conservancy preserve that has been protected from man for more than two centuries.

My hike through the preserve was an experience of part sadness over what is gone and awe at what remains. What's missing are hundreds of 150-foot white pines that dated back to just before the Revolutionary War – the surviving members of the first cutting by settlers. The tree trunks – now covered with shrouds of moss and ferns – line the forest floor where they fell, rotting and returning to the earth.

But directly to the southeast in a ravine, some giants along a portion of the Connecticut Forest and Park Association's blue-blazed Mohawk Trail – a 24-mile-long path that follows what was once the state's section of the Appalachian Trail before it was rerouted. From the parking area, the trail ascends up a series of stairs to a high point with huge pines as your companions.

A deep ravine takes visitors off the trail to a vast area where the fallen giants rest. Springs bubble up from the sides of the ravine and streams tumble underneath the jumble of fallen trees. Huge clumps of earth and small boulders lie among the trees' roots, unearthed when the tornadoes roared through. It's a workout just to get over and under the massive trees.

And some of the story isn't even in the trees themselves. It's the Calhoun family, some of the state's first preservationists, who that first purchased the land in 1883 to prevent it from being logged. Without them protecting the stand for nearly a century before donating it to the Nature Conservancy in 1967, there would be no Cathedral Pines.

"Most Connecticut citizens when they think of pine trees visualize a young pine tree of the kind ordinarily seen in nurseries or water company plantations," according to a 1937 Courant article on the pines. "It will amaze such persons to see what the great pine trees of Connecticut really looked like when the white men first came to this state...There is no recipe for producing such forests, except time. It will take a minimum of between two and three hundred years to produce another stand of pines as impressive as those on display in the town of Cornwall."

In a 1993 Courant article, Judy Preston, then director of science and stewardship for the Connecticut chapter of the conservancy, perhaps summed it up best as she looked to the future of the Cathedral Pines:

"At the very least we would like to make this so that people could come and give their own self-guided tour and look at the site and say, 'Wow, it is more than just a bunch of downed trees.' "

In a state that has clear-cut itself many times over, this patch of forest is still a wonder and has remained relatively unscathed, except for those violent summer winds of 25 years ago.

Route 4 to Great Hollow Road. Take a right on Essex Hill Road shortly after passing Mohawk Mountain Ski Area. Follow to parking area for Cathedral Pines on the right.

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