Southford Falls State Park A Respite In Our Darkest Hours

During life's darkest hours, the woods have always been my security blanket. It has always been a place where civilization disappears, replaced by the peaceful sounds of wind whispering through the pines or an owl hooting deep in the forest.

And after last week's tragedy in Newtown, I needed a trip into the natural world. Maybe we all do.

Southford Falls State Park, located just to the northeast of the school where 20 children and six teachers and administrators were killed by a single gunman, is a place to escape, recharge, and above all, heal.

Laura Saunders, a staff psychologist at Hartford Hospital's Institute of Living, is a believer in seeking an "outdoor connection."

"The energy of the environment around you gets you outside yourself and your inner thoughts," she said. "It gives people a sense of perspective and healing. Those kinds of experiences can be inspiring and help yourself feel better. Especially doing it as a family, you are enjoying it together and healing together. It is fostering a sense of connection and of things greater than ourselves."

That healing process begins as soon as you pull into the parking lot and hear the sound of rushing water as Papermill Pond empties into rocky Eightmile Brook.

If there is a single outdoor scene that immediately takes your stress away, it's a waterfall. And Southford Falls are some of the state's most picturesque. The water tumbles over a broken dam, down a deep chasm lined with boulders and under a rustic covered bridge.

There is a 2-mile, red-blazed loop trail within the 170-acre park that goes along the banks of Eightmile Brook up to a fire tower. The backside of the loop passes through a deep forest with ledges and rocky knolls. The trail eventually ends at Papermill Pond.

And there is plenty of local history along the way, with grist mill stones lying on the ground, huge iron water pipes that once powered machinery and old foundations of mill buildings. According to the park's brochure, a papermill operated along the river for more than 70 years, starting in the mid-1800s. The most successful mill was operated by the Diamond Match Co., which made paperboard for matchbooks and boxes before it was destroyed by fire.

The highlight was the view of the waterfalls from the windows of the covered bridge, its roof covered with bright green moss. Another must-see is a twisting boardwalk that runs along the banks of Eightmile Brook. And although it took a bit of a climb to get there, the recently refurbished fire tower offers breathtaking views.

During the hike, I spent a few minutes watching a mother and her young child laughing and frolicking along the edges of the waterfall and walking hand-in-hand across the covered bridge. Peace on earth? Goodwill toward men? You can still believe in those ideals in the healing forest.

Take I-84 to exit 16. Follow Route 188 to the junction of Route 67. At a traffic light, take a left on Route 67 and a right back on Route 188. The park is a half mile down on the left.

Questions or column suggestions are welcome. Peter Marteka may be reached by phone at 860-647-5365; pmarteka @courant.com or by mail at The Courant, 200 Adams St., Manchester, CT 06040.

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