Westerly Land Trust’s Winter Walking

By HHA Member Tom Helmer

Many of our pages this Winter have emphasized to point that our various Public Access Trails are open all year round for the benefit of all in the Community and surrounding “Day Trip” regions. On an earlier page, “Four Season Community Recreation On Tomaquag Trail”, I wrote about my surprise at expecting a pristine blanket of snow, undisturbed by human activity, only to find that a small herd of humanity had boot stomped, snow shoed, and cross country skied on every loop of the trail system!

On the morning of March 5, 2014, Bob Miner was lamenting that he would not be joining his friend Geoff Sewall, who was taking the lead on the Westerly Land Trust’s regular Thursday morning hike. This week’s hike was going to be on Grills Sanctuary’s Tomaquag Trail, frequently featured on this site.

Well, nothing would do but that I get down to the trail head and meet the folks from the other side of Polly Coon Bridge, as the trail system links our two towns in one co-operative Public Access project completed by both the Westerly Land Trust and the Hopkinton Land Trust.

There were fifteen people ready to go when Geoff, who was quite familiar to me as he contributed mightily to building the Tomaquag Brook Bridge, called a quick meeting. At 10:00 precisely, off we went.

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The snow is grudgingly giving the ground a peek at sunlight, but this Winter has been very cold, with a number of snow storms. For an encouraging contrast for those afflicted with “Cabin Fever”, proof that Spring will come is shown by comparing this same field in the web page “Four Season Community Recreation On Tomaquag Trail”. But that “Big Picture” was little consolation on this morning. You can see the ice, and the numerous freeze/thaw cycles turned portions of the trail into mini glaciers.

But it was apparent that this group of mixed ages and genders were experienced at what safe Winter Hiking is all about. Many carried a ski pole type walking stick, as 3 feet are better than 2, some had slip over boot spikes and walked with confidence in the hardest glare ice surfaces.

When I got home later, I found one of the reasons for their being prepared for the season when I logged onto the Westerly Land Trust’s Website. If you like Hiking, and are nearby, you have to see how this organization takes care of “Scratching your woodsy itch” with a weekly schedule of a variety of hikes!

This site is a model for other groups wishing to set up a regular program of frequent hikes.

And my random sampling based on talking to this group of hikers was they had a friendly welcome to me, the stranger, and all ages were comfortable with the pace they set. Of course it was way to fast for me, but John adopted me, the disabled guy, and stuck with me in a perfect display of the “Buddy System. Geoff knew I was familiar with the trail layout, and tactfully suggested that John and I just head for the bridge, while the main group did all the loops, then headed for the bridge.

For two days in a row I was able to take photos of the faces of hikers, not their derrieres! Thank You, Harvey and Geoff! But now I’m getting ahead of myself in telling the story in pictures.


John and I on the Cedar Swamp Trail stop to look at a red oak that split, perhaps this Winter, or from a wind overload another time. Going slow has it’s benefits, in that you can see more. We did get ahead of the group, but not for long, as here they came!

Look at these pictures closely, and you will see they split up in conversational pairs. Geoff later explained to me that the weekly hikes were also Social Events for the participants. John said they were the highlight of his week. I could see this in person, and you can see it in these pictures coming up. We are on the white diamond Tomaquag Trail, a hundred yards away from the bridge.

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Across the bridge we go! Spring Is definitely coming! There is no ice capping the brook.
Downstream, “Courage” bridge remembers the days where it could dump a hiker into the brook.
At the bridge, the blow down’s root ball still seems substantial. It will be interesting to later compare this shot with others showing the Spring High Water’s erosive effects. Please note John, in the upper Right corner, looking back to check on me. That’s the essence of the Buddy System, condensed into one tiny snippet of one photo. Thank You! I hope we see each other on another trail in the future, partner!
The group leaves the flat terrain behind, and heads for the hills. Note the spotty snows of Spring. The day after this photo was taken, my friend Harvey reported his first red wing blackbird of 2014!
Geoff calls a halt on the West end of the boardwalk to briefly pass along the saga he well knows about building the bridge and boardwalk, as his fingerprints are all over every beam and board!


We confer, and he will wait for me at the crest before the picnic table to give me a chance to show a new group of eyes the Narragansett Presence that is so easy to overlook until you learn to “See”.

Rejoining in the Sacred Landscape, I have time to point out 3 of the 4 Archaeological Features: a Grave, the Drum Rock, and the Watcher’s Rocks. Often, all it takes to open a person’s eyes to Indigenous Archaeology is to see it as it sleeps in the wild. Gee spoke about the distinctive cairns in his location. Clearly he was looking around and wondering “Why” for the mysterious piles of rocks in CT.

For those who were interested in learning more about the hidden world at their feet, I recommended the web page “Seeing The Narragansett Presence”. HHA takes the position that the best way to safeguard the historic legacy now placed under our stewardship is not by following the path of secrecy, but by following the path of education. This was a group of seasoned experienced hikers. When I asked who could see the Narragansett Grave, they all turned around and looked at the hills behind them, not the grave I was standing beside. These are not stupid people, they were interested in the history of our land. But they were never taught to “see”. Now, many of them will walk with new eyes and insight.

And that is the point of passing on what you learn. Many among this group will be the ones to speak up, to speak out, in defense of the invisible archaeology in their woods, because now they KNOW about it! And they will open the eyes of other hikers, as Bob Miner opened mine. THAT is the power of Knowledge, the vital component of intelligent preservation.

The HHA web site has many pages under our Indigenous History section, which I recommend for your reading, as well as the four historical fiction short stories, edited by a Narragansett, which immerse you into the culture of different eras, from pre-contact indigenous to our own near future.

At the Sacred Landscape I parted ways with the group. They went off to see the Polly Coon Bridge, while I, out of gas, slowly wandered my way back to the trail head, photographing the change of the seasons as Life In The Unstoppable Slow Lane progressed week by week. Interestingly, the group made it back to the trailhead before me, but lingered to chat. They walked more miles in 3 hours than what I could accomplish in 6. But Love of what we preserve is not measure by miles. We all Loved equally this day.

What follows is a gallery of “Life in the Slow Lane”

A late Winter Trickle Brook hurries downslope.
A white oak “Wolf Tree” blow down is visible in it’s entirety with no foliage to obscure the view.
The Southern Hillside is bare, absorbing solar energy in it’s micro climate. This is where “Valley Spring” will blossom first.
Harvey spotted this Skunk Cabbage coming up through the snow and ice on our 2/20/14 walk. Fifteen days later it is swelling, in spite of the frigid below average temps. (In the slow lane, you get to know individual Skunk Cabbages. Oh Boy! That definitely AIN’T 21st Century Thinking!)
Downstream, sunlight reflects off the miniature rapids and whirlpools as the Trickle Brook continues it’s quest to slowly wash the entire hillside into the Atlantic Ocean. It’s good to have big dreams. P.S. … Bet on the trickle brook!
Only in the 4th Season can you stand on the Western bank of Tomaquag Brook’s Flood Plain and not only see the bridge steps in the circle, but have the snow point out the Eastern plateau.

If your eyes are good, in this shot you can see the entire length of the boardwalk, and the bridge steps, and the bridge, and the Eastern plateau.

Three retrospective photos from near this vantage point follow.

The first is from two weeks before, when Harvey and I made tracks across the boardwalk. If you look sharp, you can see Harvey’s orange vest on the bridge. You can’t see him eating it, but I think he smuggled down an Apple Spice jelly donut and didn’t want to share! 🙂

The second is Harvey’s shot from late November, clearly illustrating why pre-construction engineering of the trail dictated the 275’ of boardwalk be built in the first place.

The third is Harvey’s shot from late October as the helical piles and big black locust beams formed the stable foundation for the fiberglass beams. (For more on the construction of Tomaquag Trail, please see the web page “Grills Preserve Bridge Progress”, which contains hundreds of photos showing progress day by day.)

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This is what your boots see when walking the trail.

97% of all boots surveyed preferred to cross on the board walk. Somewhere there is a Swamp Yankee with three feet, or there are two Swamp Yankees who only have 3 boots between ‘em.

Of course, waaay back in the day, if you wanted to get from Point A to Point B, you had no choice.

Think about it.

In a few months, I will be standing in at least 6 inches of Spring’s High Water to take the next 3 shots. The thing about being a Web Master is eventually I will make a page “The Year At Tomaquag Trail”,wpdfd36f61_05_06

Each season has it’s own special flavor.

No matter how good the photos I will use are, to really see it, you have to see it with your own eyes and all your senses. Come on down and see for yourself some day!

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The view upstream. If you could journey upstream in a hovercraft, eventually Tomaquag Brook would lead you across Route 3, on the North side of Lawton Foster Road South, till you came out near the Trail Head on the right side of North Road, where Tomaquag brook is a shallow trickle, dreaming of washing most of Hopkinton into the Atlantic Ocean.

Running water always dreams BIG!
Don’t laugh in our hubris. The Grand Canyon was carved out by a trickle brook far to the North.


The view to the West. Back in the planning stage, Harvey Buford worked with local Hopkinton surveyor Al D’Oreo to route the bridge and boardwalk at the narrowest width of the Flood Plain. The Trail’s foot print required the deliberative removal of dead, leaning, widow makers and “Blow Downs” Somebody check on this root ball to see what’s left each June. By 2019, I expect it will be different.


Before this bridge was constructed, a blow down that fell across the brook had an entry way cut in it’s root ball, and the most determined hikers used “Courage Bridge”, shown in an earlier photo, to cross Tomaquag Brook Flood Plain in the brief “non-swamp” season. But before “Courage Bridge” came down, and the entry way was cut and the trunk de-barked to provide a “No Surprises” surface, the old timers used the large blow down seen further downstream in this photograph.

I don’t know specifically how many people slipped and went in, to the total destruction of all personal electronics, but someone had to take a swim.

Not surprisingly, the Gallop Poll among boots is 100% in favor of using the bridge.

Contrarians, pick your season! Harvey and I went wading during November to install the scaffolding. That was a necessity, still, people wondered about us BEFORE we went strolling in the brook. If your wading is “optional”, I would suggest you choose June through September.

Anyway, back to business. Here is the bridge used before “Courage” Bridge.


Traveling in the Slow Lane, especially with white hair, you have time to spot the Metaphors. (No, it’s not a plant or an animal, it’s a condensation of Life’s experiences.) The final picture is just such a Metaphor.

Deer footprint in snow

“We only make footprints in the snow for a limited time. Try to make your’s Purposeful.”