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The Widow’s Clearing

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

This week’s post begins at what is by now, a fairly common trailhead for my runs, the Brooks Road parking lot.  This trailhead, a mile or so downhill from the Middlebury College Snow Bowl, has been the starting point for several of my blogged runs over the last year, most recently a post entitled “A Tale of Two Weekends.  Nonetheless, there are many opportunities for unique runs emanating from this National Forest entry point, so I keep coming back to check out new variations.  I have skied this route quite a few times over the years, but have only done limited exploring of most of this route during the summer months, so much of the scenery looked very different from the images in my memory.

The start of this run, however, treads on familiar turf.  I suspected (correctly) that some of the terrain would be a little rougher later on in the run,  so I chose to complete the lion’s share of the climbing on the easy running surface of Brooks Rd., including the entirety of the “up and back” route described last summer in the Sugar Hill Reservoir post.  The straightforward start to this run involved running up Brooks Rd. for 2.5 miles until joining the righthand side trail leading to the reservoir at the three mile mark.  Entering the clearing below the reservoir dam, I noted a sign which was clearly aimed at runners who were far more fleet footed than I!

Speed Warning

Rather than returning to my car by the same route, I chose to lengthen the run by delving deeper into the National Forest and trying out a loop run.  Immediately after entering the dam clearing, take the trail veering downhill sharply to the right.  At this point, the run seemed much more committed than other runs in the area, leaving me with the impression that I was heading into remote wilderness, despite the fact that civilized roads are never far away.  The next 4 miles or so are on trails which are well-skied upon in the winter, but rarely travelled in the summer months, so there are some sections which are (surprise surprise) very muddy and/or slightly overgrown, but never difficult to follow.  In order to find your way back to the parking lot, the simplest instruction is ALWAYS STAY RIGHT at each obvious trail junction.  Since much of this trail parallels the Ripton-Goshen Road a “wrong turn” to the left will probably deposit you pretty quickly on this obvious dirt road, but you can be back on route by reversing your course for a few minutes.  Finally, this segment of the  route also coincides with The Catamount Trail, the state-long ski trail, so the unique Catamount Trail markers can be followed as well.  This stretch of the Catamount Trail eventually joins up with the Widow’s Clearing Trail at a well marked intersection.

Catamount Trail joins Widow's Clearing Trail

From this point on until the end of the run, the trail through mature hardwood forest following the Widow’s Clearing Trail.  There is one last tricky intersection, a sharp turn climbing to the right which I would have overlooked if it wasn’t pretty well marked.  About a half mile from the end of this loop I passed by large hillside clearing, which was clearly the remnants of a former homestead, as indicated by the ancient apple orchard at its edge.  A small sign referring to this site as the Widow’s Clearing was also nailed into a trailside tree.  A descent on well traveled trail returned me to the parking lot to complete this 7.6 mile loop.

Google Earth of the run

Between numerous signs labeling the Widows Clearing trail, the Widow’s Clearing trailhead, and the Widow’s Clearing itself, upon my return to my vehicle, I began to wonder, who was the eponymous widow?  I was not able to find any information on my own, so I emailed my favorite expert on local history, Jan at the Sheldon Museum.  She was not familiar with this mysterious widow, but she did some research, and eventually connected me with William J. Powers, Jr. of Lake Dunmore and Rutland.  All of the following information comes from Bill and is the result of his unpublished research on the topic.  This is just a brief synopsis of a much larger body of his work.  Bill has also authored a history book on another of my favorite  running destinations, Silver Lake, and those who are interested in learning more about the history of the lake and its surroundings can purchase his book at the Sheldon Museum.

As it turns out, the widow of interest was one Lucina (Billings) Chatfield, 1818-1897.  While Lucina was born in Tunbridge, she married Alonzo Chatfield in Middlebury in 1838.  They moved up to his home in Ripton, and in 1859 they started farming the plot of land which we now call the Widow’s Clearing. Local records indicate that their farm was rather poor, even by Ripton hill farm standards.  When this site became known as “Widow’s Clearing” is not in the information which I have at my disposal, but it is clear that Lucina was not widowed immediately – she was abandoned by her husband!  In 1855 Alonzo left her and their four children, and moved to Michigan where he lived the rest of his life with his second wife.  Accounts from that time also indicated that Lucina was not openly distraught about this.  Whether this was stoicism on her part, or a case of “good riddance”, we can only speculate.  She owned and operated the farm until 1882, in later years with her son Parsons and his family, although it is not clear if she actually lived there all those years.  It must have been a challenging hardscrabble existence for Lucina and her family, as an 1871 map of Ripton shows “Mrs. Chatfield’s farm” as the most remote, and probably highest altitude farm in Ripton.  Nonetheless, local records also show that by this time, the farm was more successful than it had been during the years of her marriage.  In 1882, Lucina, Parsons, and his family relocated to Middlebury, and there is no record of anyone living at the clearing after that time.  The widow passed away in East Bethel, VT in 1897 at the age of 79, and was buried in the Galvin Cemetery in Ripton alongside her parents.  Kind of an interesting little story of the challenges of mountain life in Vermont!

Finally, Bill’s research also uncovered a picture of the view from the Widow’s Clearing, circa 1870.  The wide open land stands in sharp contrast to the fully recovered forest of modern times. This photo is included with his permission.

A Tale of Two Weekends

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Two weekends ago, I had a great run in the mountains with the intention of writing it up for this blog.  While out on the run,  I discovered much to my dismay that the batteries in my camera were dead, negating the opportunity for including a few photos.  Adding further to my technological woes, my other primary gadget, the GPS watch with which I map out the run, had apparently hiccup’ed at one point in the run, indicating a 500 vertical ft drop and climb in a section of the trail which I knew to be quite flat.  I could have attempted to take on the challenge of creating an appropriate mental picture of the run with just the power of my words, but instead chose the easy way out, namely re-running the route with my technological crutches in better working order.  This did, however, present a perfect opportunity to see the same trails from two very different perspectives, given significant differences in weather, trail conditions, and my own physical state.  Thus, this description will not only describe the route, but also illustrate the differences which can occur over the course of just one week, especially one week in Vermont’s unpredictable April weather.

This run starts at one of my favorite trailheads, the Brooks Rd. parking area, which can be accessed by a short drive up Rt 125 above East Middlebury.  Brooks Rd. is the dirt road heading right shortly after passing the Breadloaf Campus, before the final ascent to the Snow Bowl, and the large parking area is found about a quarter mile down the road.  During the winter and spring, this parking lot is the end of the road, but when things dry out in the summer and fall, the full road is open to vehicular traffic, although I don’t remember ever seeing a vehicle on it!  This trailhead is also featured on my previous posts entitled “Brooks Road” (creative, I know) and “Sugar Hill Reservoir“.

Week One:  It usually takes me a few months of training each spring to start trying runs longer than 5 or 6 miles, but the continuing gorgeous weather this year encouraged me to put my middle-aged runner’s mantra of “long and slow” to an earlier than usual test.  A cool but sunny Sunday afternoon tempted me to try a longer run which had been on my “to do” list for some time, connecting several sections of trail which I had previously skied or run in segments, but had never linked together in a route with a potentially fun loop around the Sugar Hill reservoir.  Upon my arrival at the trailhead, I could see that the weather had beckoned others to enjoy the outdoors as well – this often quite empty lot had a surprising number of parked cars, indicating that my day’s inspiration had not been unique.  I started off the run very slowly, not really knowing how my body would respond to the anticipated mileage and climb.  The plan for the first 3.7 miles of the run matched the route described in my Brooks Rd. ski tour – a straightforward uphill run on a dirt road culminating at the road’s terminus.  The stiffness in my legs made the first 1.5 miles consisting of the lion’s share of the climbing a little tougher than usual.  It was great to see others, including walkers, fishermen, and even a family heading out for an overnight on the Long Trail, enjoying the day as well.  Another family of wild turkeys crossed the road in front of me, and disappeared quickly into the woods as I trudged by.  Note the trail merging from the right at the 2.4 mile mark – this is where the loop portion of the run rejoins the dirt road in a few miles.  Upon reaching the end of the dirt road, I couldn’t help but reminisce on how much snow there was up here less than two months ago while crossing the footbridge over Sucker Brook.  Sucker Brook cascades down from the main Green Mt. ridge at this point, and continues its descent joining, and then providing the outlet for the Sugar Hill reservoir, and continuing on until its final rush over the Falls of Lana before reaching its outlet at Lake Dunmore in Salisbury. At this point, almost all of the climbing on the route had been completed, which was fortunate, as my legs were starting to tighten up, and I had quite a few more miles to go.

No more snow

No more Snow!

Week Two:  A few long runs over the last week got many of the winter’s kinks out of my legs, so I was looking forward to testing them with a more challenging workout.  Pulling into the empty parking lot, I could see that the day’s blustery, unseasonably cold weather had given me complete solitude for the day’s run.  Looking up towards the mountains in the distance, it was easy to make out the snow line from the previous evening’s precipitation, and I couldn’t help but wonder if my planned run would take me high enough for some running on snow-covered paths.  My legs felt as loose as I had hoped they would – at least this would prove a strong workout, even if the weather was far poorer than the week before.  Reaching the end of Brooks Rd., I was somewhat relieved to see that the 750 feet of altitude gain over the course of the climb had not quite brought me up to the snow zone, although I could see the rather distinct demarcation line between earlier snow and rain occurring only a few hundred vertical feet above where I was standing.

Week One:   The run continued for a few yards beyond the end of the road, joining the Sucker Brook Trail in the Blueberry Hill ski touring area.  A left turn here would bring you to the Long Trail, and eventually north to Middlebury Gap over Worth Mountain, but the lead in my legs necessitated taking the right turn, descending.  The expected April mud was apparent, and in a few short sections it could not be avoided, but to my (pleasant) surprise, most of the trail was relatively dry with good footing.  Sucker Brook is intermittently visible to the right, first at pretty much the same altitude as the trail, and eventually well below down a steep embankment.  Passing several groups of hikers, and staying on the downhill trail at every trail junction gets you to the forest service road connecting the Goshen-Ripton road with the Goshen Dam and the reservoir.  The last quarter mile or so of the trail corresponds to the route of the “Goshen Gallop“, but instead of turning left on the dirt road to complete the aforementioned race, take the right turn on the short uphill to get to the next landmark on this route, the reservoir.  A few cars and trucks motored by, presumably bringing fisherman and other outdoor enthusiasts to and from this popular spring fishing hole.  A short descent brought me around the corner to an odd looking forest service gate, and out into the open area featuring reservoir views.  From the vantage of the Goshen Dam, I could see numerous groups of people fishing around the shoreline and enjoying the bright sun which made the day feel warmer than the temperature indicated.

Week Two:  As I turned the corner onto the Sucker Brook trail descent, the increasingly cloudy skies finally began release the anticipated precipitation.  Over the course of the next two miles or so, the trail alternated between quagmire and open stream, as the weather alternated between drizzle, heavy rain, and freezing rain.  The right turn onto the Goshen dam road allowed for faster running with the improved footing, and there was no need to worry about oncoming traffic – nobody else in their right mind was out today.  The short fast descent to the oddly shaped gate blocking vehicular traffic but not runners made the reasons for this gate more apparent.  The gate was designed with a “crook” to allow passage, and I would guess that it was placed here for the benefit of mountain bikers, who might not have a chance to respond to a more typical gate design as they came hauling around the corner on this short steep descent.  The same crook which allowed my easy passage was also just the right width for a cyclist, and this design probably has saved quite a few mountain bikers from bone-jarring and painfully sudden stops.

Mountain Biker-Friendly Gate

Mountain Biker-Friendly Gate

By this point the descending clouds were obscuring the surrounding peaks, and as the rain gained intensity, the lone fisherman in sight appeared to abandon his  sentinel’s post on a small rocky outcropping and head back to his pickup truck.

Lakeside Solitude

Lakeside Solitude

Week One:  After crossing the dam, the trail headed into the woods along the far shore of the reservoir, making a series of short and steep climbs.   By this point, the length and challenge of the run had taken a lot out of me, and my running was reduced to fast walking by the crest of the final hill.  Fortunately, the last 2.5 miles were all downhill, but the cramping in my legs forced a slow descent.  A sharp left turn back onto Brooks Road brought me back to my parked car, with my GPS registering this as an 8.8 mile run – not bad for April, but I could tell my legs would be the source of some regret for this run that evening and the next day.

Week Two:  Bearing right on the trail after crossing the dam, the muddy ascent along the far shore passed more quickly than expected – I was pretty wet, and eager to complete this otherwise scenic run run under less than ideal conditions.  I couldn’t help but notice a very deep set of tracks in the mud, but my modest tracking skills combined with the ill-defined tracks made it difficult to tell whether they were created by the passage of an earlier horseback rider, or a moose, as both are common here.  The tracks eventually left the trail and headed into the forest, making it more obvious which of these animals had generated them!  As I took the left turn onto Brooks Rd., the rain turned to snow, and left me looking like a snowman for a few minutes until the last of the run’s precipitation ceased.  I enjoyed picking up the pace a little bit on this descent, and when I reached my car, I easily threw in a lap around the parking lot to make this run an even 9 miles.

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Google Earth projection of Sugar Hill reservoir loop

Google Earth projection of Sugar Hill reservoir loop

Brooks Road

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

The continued snow drought is keeping me in the higher elevations.  That said – the snow is still great up there!  This week’s ski is a winter variation on one of my running posts from last summer, the Sugar Hill Reservoir run.  Start this ski tour in the Brooks Road parking lot,which is found about a quarter mile from Rt. 125 just east of The Rikert Ski touring area.  This parking lot is a popular starting point for skiers, snowshoers, and snowmobilers.  I have also found that it is a great place to ski in low snow conditions, like this year, or early in the season before the first serious snow dumpings hit.  Once again, some of the best skiing is on snowmobile trails this season, and since the lower 2/3 of the Brooks Rd. climb is groomed for and by snowmobiles, this is where I started!

The first hundred yards or so were pretty rocky, so I made a mental note to make sure I was not going too fast at the end of the descent (a little literary foreshadowing there) so that I wouldn’t get hurt.   The snow coverage got a lot better as soon as the climbing started, however, except for a few short stretches where overhanging pine trees diminished the ground snow cover.  These few minor problems aside, it was a steady easy climb on skating skis due to the fast, granular snow which has seen a few freeze-thaw cycles and just enough traffic to keep it from icing up.  I knew the lowest 2/3 of the road would be fine, as this section is almost always well groomed for snowmobilers, and had planned on turning off the road towards the Sugar Hill Reservoir – following the route of my aforementioned summer run.  I was pleasantly surprised, however, to see that the upper reaches of Brooks Rd. had been groomed for skiing for the first time in my recent memory.  I presume our friends at Blueberry Hill have run their super-duper ski groomer Pisten Bully over this section at some point in the not too distant past, as this stretch is not open to winter motor sports. After about another mile of easy climbing, there was a slight descent to the end of the road.  Given that it had been a few years since I last ventured up here in winter or summer, I was a little bit surprised to see the road end prematurely, but I followed the less impeccably groomed trail beyond this point.  I quickly saw why the road had ended – apparently the old bridge up here had washed out at some point, and it was replaced by a nice little footbridge.  I am not sure when exactly this went in, but I suspect that it was another of the fixes necessitated by the massive thunderstorms which wreaked havoc on Hancock, Ripton and East Middlebury in August 2008.

brooks Road 002

Brooks Road Washout Bridge

Immediately past the new bridge,  the remnants of the old road funnel into a true trail, marking the entry into the Blueberry Hill Ski Touring Area, so continuation beyond this point leaves you morally and fiscally obligated to drop by the touring center and pay for use of their well-kept trails.  I have no objection to paying their very fair fee, but since I really didn’t have time to make full use of their trails, I chose to turn around and return to my car.  The return was fast and easy, and with the steady, but not too steep descent I thought I would use my GPS to see how fast I could get going.  The very lowest sections are the steepest, so this provided to opportunity to check my pace.  While my speed was not at all alarming, I wanted to see if I could at least break 20 miles per hour, so was skiing with my eyes on my wrist rather than the trail.  Just a little faster……A moment after I saw my speed break 20, (21 mph to be exact), I looked up and saw a small bare patch in the snow which was too late to avoid!  Note to self – old granular snow makes for easy gliding, while old granular dirt does not.  While my skis put on the brakes, the momentum of my body kept the rest of me traveling along briskly, with the expected result.  Ouch!  Fortunately, the worst bruises were to my ego as I got up, dusted off, and returned to my waiting car a short distance away.

This ski trip is 12 km (about 7.5 miles) round trip with about a 750 ft climb and descent.

Google Earth of Brooks Road

Google Earth of Brooks Road

Altitude Profile

Altitude Profile