Imagine a place a few miles from the shores of Long Island Sound where one can hike from dawn to dusk without leaving its borders. Where a series of high ledges dotted with small caves overlook a vast marsh that attracts thousands of migrating birds each year.
It would be a great place to visit. Unfortunately it is private property. Owned by the now-bankrupt Lehman Brothers, "The Preserve" is a 1,000-acre swath of coastal forest – one of the last intact pieces remaining in the Boston-to-New York City corridor – in the towns of Essex, Old Saybrook and Westbrook.
The Trust For Public Land is trying to raise $12 million through a combination of state and town funding, along with private donations, to purchase and preserve the land. The effort has been supported by the Connecticut Fund for the Environment, Connecticut Audubon Society and The Nature Conservancy.
My guide for a recent two-hour visit to The Preserve was naturalist Chris Cryder, special projects coordinator for the Connecticut Fund's Save The Sound program. Cryder would often use the property as a shortcut as he rode his bike from Old Saybrook to a job at the Essex Meadows retirement community which borders The Preserve. The sense of wonder and awe that attracted him to the forest as a boy remained with him as we explored the frozen swamp and vernal pools, the caves and ledges and a place known as the "central bowl."
"This is the No. 1 land conservation priority," he said over the noise of our boots crunching across the snow pack. "It's not only an asset for the town, but a regional and state asset."
Since 1998, various development projects for portions of the property have been considered and discarded, including plans for 200 homes and an 18-hole golf course. As we walked through the woods, test holes could still be seen, serving as a reminder of what could happen if the land is developed.
With the area still in the deep slumber of a New England winter, we walked along the frozen top of the swamp. Cryder talked about how members of the Pequot Native American tribe used the land as their ancient hunting grounds and came to escape colonists. He plucked a couple of native low bush cranberries poking through the ice and pointed to the remnants of old wooden tranmission poles that rise from the swamp.
We explored the caves of some of the highest cliffs in Old Saybrook and walked through the deep forest, passing a patch of eastern prickly pear, a native cactus. We explored a stone dam from the days the land served as a hunting preserve. We passed by a series of frozen waterfalls to an area Cryder called the "central bowl."
Although near busy I-95 and one of the most-developed shorelines in the Northeast, the only sounds heard in the bowl were a plane flying overhead and the distant whistle from the Essex Steam Train. And as we returned to our cars, Cryder pointed out that while we spent two hours hiking at a good pace, we had only seen about 20 percent of The Preserve. It was awe-inspirng.
By June, we will know if the effort to save the 1,000 acres of coastal forest was a success.
If not, the land will return to the open market. The effort to save The Preserve may only be a memory – and the chance to visit this place forever lost to future generations.
For more information on upcoming hikes of The Preserve on March 15 and 22, visit preserve1000acres.com or call Cryder at 860-395-7016 to register.