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Looking Foward 2019

Looking Foward 2019

A few weeks ago I wrote my annual review post looking back over the previous year as a way to work through what went well and what didn’t.  This month I’d like to write about the coming year and my ideas for pushing this site and myself forward.  The site seems stable, I’ve gotten into a good groove of updating, and people are visiting!

Black Pond from the Overlook on the Mattabessett

The biggest thing from my review post was engagement.  I’d like feedback on how ExploreCT is viewed by you and any ideas on how to make it more useful.  While this is a personal project, no site stands alone.  I’d love to hear other’s stories and try to weave them into the pages here.  I started a curated Instagram to share others’ photos and captures of the state’s beauty.  I also see it as a place find indefatigable explorers and others with great ideas for the state.  In the first two weeks I’ve already puzzled over a Grand Connecticut Trail (connecting blue blaze trails east to west) and planned a long distance hike for CT Trails Day in June.  I now tweet as well to share quick reactions of my adventures and to stay more up to date on things going on in the state.

I also created a signup for a monthly email newsletter, so far no takers (though the signup is out of the way at the bottom of the page).  Which is fine because I have barebones content and haven’t settled on a format.  ExploreCT’s newsletter would highlight explorations and recap new updates to old pages as well plan for the coming month.  

Subscribe below if you are interested

Beyond the site, I’m looking to return to the host of activities I’ve picked up at one time or another and have gotten away from.  Whether it was fishing with friends, backpacking with the Boy Scouts, or climbing in college (unintentional alliteration!).  So far my plans are to fly fish with my brother in law once the season starts, backpack with Mat Jobin from Reach Your Summit for CT Trails Day, and return to the climbing gym to at least boulder.  I have bigger plans for trips and activities but will withhold those as nice surprises down the road.

The less planned area of personal growth is education.  I have a mental picture of future me as a naturalist identifying my surroundings with ease.  I guess reaching that potential future hasn’t been a priority and I’ll never reach it if I don’t make it one.  So it seems the smart way to tackle this is to spend some deliberate time each hike identifying. I think this will be a good challenge in the field and improve the writing here. 

Recent photos on the exploreCTorg Instagram

I wouldn’t be acting on what I just wrote if I didn’t ask, what do you want to do, learn, and see?  Please send any news, feedback, backpacking gear, or Grand Connecticut Trail enthusiasm to matt@explorect.org

2018 Annual Review

2018 Annual Review

It’s time for a review, looking back not just in terms of exploration, but also in the growth of this site.  The exploration highlights of the year:

2018 was an eventful year where I really rounded out the hikes in the Northeast part of the state.  From forgotten town trails to the worst hike ever at Blackwell Brook. We had 149 days of rain this year which made every waterfall and cascade hammer beautifully at the cost of mud and wet feet on nearly every hike.  Old properties changed, like the dam removal at Blackledge Falls and the tornado that closed Sleeping Giant.  New trails were added like the Williams Preserve in Coventry and I got to map the trails at both Humaston Brook and Bishop Swamp.

Looking Back

I added 114 locations to the map in 2018:

I also revised every location (some quite a few times) to have more complete information, clickable links, and useful stats at a glance. I have also continued to edit and update locations added in the past. Sometimes due to new information and sometimes because I can’t believe how poorly I wrote them.

What went well this year:

Balance.  I upheld both the exploration and writing goals of this site throughout the year and really hit my stride in the last couple months.  I feel great about how often I was able to get outdoors and the amount of writing I got to do around it. I had 93 days of hiking this year and added about two new locations to the site each week. I still have a backlog of places to add and a looong to-do list but that’s just fuel for an easy burning fire.

Visitors.  The site is now getting about 1,000 hits each month, up from the 60 or so at this time last year.  I’m surprised and thrilled that so many people are finding the site and I hope finding it useful.  I’d like to build on that success and engage with readers in the coming year (see what didn’t go so well below).

What didn’t go so well this year:

ExploreCT: Season 1.  I had intended to do a more “official” series of videos showcasing different locations around the state.  I had the locations selected, parks visited and researched, storyboards completed and then I just… didn’t film them.  I think this is because they never felt official enough like I was waiting for one more idea to add some polish. Instead, I filmed a bunch of go-out-and-explore movies that were light on information and relied more on the process of discovery.  Once I am able to meld the vision in my head with my technical ability, this will fall together.

Where to Start Page.  Another intention of mine was to create a page introducing the site and some tips towards using it well.  Most visitors to the site seem to come from Google searches and, if interested, flip back through the post history.  A “Start Here” page might provide a different channel to explore the site and I think I could have some fun presenting new ways to look at groups of listings. This is another example of trying to match vision with ability that keeps getting pushed off in favor of easier projects.

Feedback.  I think the biggest missing part of this site for me is feedback from readers.  I have a handful of people that use the site regularly and I get to talk to in person, but miss interaction with readers who drop by.  I don’t have a comments system and only die-hard explorers would want a forum, so the only option is to port that part of the site to another platform like social media.  I have some ideas that I’d like to test and will post about in January.

That’s all I’ve got for this year’s Annual Review. As always, thanks for reading. I can’t wait to explore in 2019.

– Matt

A Most Productive Summer

Everything is about balance, right? 

Something I’ve been thinking about recently is attention.  And I’m going to use the theme of this site to explore it.  The idea that nature is calming to the mind, the practice of forest bathing, Thoreau going out into the woods to live deliberately.  I’ve focused this summer on productivity, carrying the load of building this site.  It energizes me to do so. I also enjoy the challenge of balancing it with the responsibilities of work and home and spending time with friends.

When I started exploring, it was for the thrill of discovering the natural world around me, be it a waterfall or overlook.  I wanted to document these travels and started taking photos.  Later I saw vlogging and loved both the immediacy and its ability to document the process of exploration and discovery of something in real time.  I realized that just walking through the woods doesn’t make for a very interesting movie and so I started looking up history and features to sprinkle in.  When I saw that it was Joshua’s Trust’s 50th Anniversary I decided as a challenge for myself I would hike every property and make a movie about it. 

This led me to realize the natural wealth around us and led me to try to discover more and to create in order to share knowledge.  As I progressed, I discovered more, accumulated more places to go, and information to condense.  This led to the birth of this site.  If I was already doing all the work for my own purposes, why not share it with others. 

Now I take in the land, photograph, and film it.  I’m writing the article in my head, discerning what photos highlight the features, and piecing together shots to document the process. In terms of attention and the “mindfulness” of being in nature, I’ve begun to wonder if the process of documenting and creating is at odds with the experience.  What level of documenting and creating would be too much?  Hypothetically, what if I tried live-streaming each hike, or taking 360-degree photos, or brought along an expert on the area.  How much of each steps outside the aesthetic experience or the moral action of being in nature? 

This is why everything is about balance.  As long as I get the same thrill from discovery and enjoy the creative process around it, I can accept my own divided attention.  Especially if it inspires someone else to explore.

ExploreCT

I’ve added or updated nearly 30 entries on the site since the last entry in August.  Here are some of the highlights:

I wandered among the Indian Council Caves.  Hiked the highest summit in each New England state and threw in CT’s highpoint as well.  Took in the overlook at Horseguard.  Found the secret campsites of Humaston Brook.  Followed the river past the lost Scripture bridge.  Hike turned trail run on the snowmobile trail at Nipmuck State Forest.  Paddled out to Selden Neck to explore the massive island.

Education

A read a fascinating book about the Americas before the landing of Europeans called 1491.  It offered more current information on the peoples and landscape of New England in the centuries leading up to the 1400s.  I got a lot of food for thought from it and added another layer to my understanding of the area.  I look forward to digging into what sites may be left from this time period.

  

Site Updates

I’m just now realizing that I’ve neglected this for the last month and a half.  I guess I’ve been focused enough on the locations and haven’t taken a step back to see how the site is working as a whole.  I haven’t received any negative feedback, but I also haven’t received any feedback in a while.  The good news is that viewership of the site has been growing steadily, which I use as an external barometer for locations I really need to explore and an internal barometer of which pages I’m embarrassed by so far.

Looking at previous ideas, no progress on the “Where to Start” page.  I did attempt a gif for a timelapse of the Parciak overlook.  I was able to create one and upload it, but it wouldn’t loop.  I guess I’m thinking of this as a “make hay while the sun shines” thing, meaning hike as much as possible while the seasons are right and save these other projects for when it gets dark early and the trails are snowed in.

Until next time,

– Matt

The Weekend Process

The Weekend Process

So nearly every weekend I do this… thing.
 
I intend to go out and explore somewhere new. I’ll be sitting at my desk in the morning, drinking my coffee, figuring out which. Once I decide, I’ll either look through my notes or start researching the location fresh. I’ll try to look up interesting features, dig into the history, and flip through any books that mention it. Just to get a sense of where I’m headed.
 
But here’s the catch.
 
Oftentimes a single property will only have a couple miles of trails. If I’m traveling a distance, I want to make the trip “worth my while” so I’ll chain together a few interesting places nearby. Or, if it’s a big state park the maze of trails requires sifting through a ton of information to figure out the best spots.
 
The next step is usually that, if I’m hitting these places, I might as well make a movie! So I start putting together some interesting talking points, take a whole sheet of notes, and before I know it… I’ve run out of time to complete the whole trip.
 
So I shelve the big plan for another day and head out for a great local hike.
 
 
ExploreCT
This past month has been one of the busiest of the year. Though once again its been all eastern Connecticut. The highlights:
I explored the ninja warrior course at Giddings Park. Ran to the Native American flute hunting outpost in Mohegan State Forest. Created the only trail map online for Bishop Swamp WMA. Explored a few forgotten parks in Brooklyn including the worst hike I’ve ever been on. Wandered the Audobon’s Bafflin Sanctuary. Caught portions of the Nehantic and Shenipsit blue blaze trails. Took in the meteor, clear waters, and overlooks of a few Tolland town parks. Sought out Wyllys Falls as well as the trio of falls in the Sprague Land Preserve. Phew!
 

Hopeville Pond in Griswold, CT

Education
I went out for a plant identification walk with a friend in the Bradley Buchanan Woods in Mansfield. He’s a current professor and former field botanist who gave me a some broad guidelines for identification and pointed out a few dozen common plants. I’ll have done well if I retained a quarter of it and am more comfortable identifying, or at least guessing, on a handful of plants. Our walk lasted over an hour tasting berries, puzzling over fungi, and fast-fire IDing trees.
 
Site Updates
19 new locations have been added and I was able to update another dozen or so. I’m still refining (but not yet creating) the “Where to Start” page. What started as a kind of decision tree has morphed into different ways to view and sort places based on everyone’s different ‘whys’ and ‘wheres’. Also, while I started this site as an outlet/record for the work I was already doing, I’d like to push it towards becoming a community. One where this site is as beneficial to me as it is to you. So thank you for reading and send an email to the address at the bottom of the page if you have any thoughts/ideas.
 
Until next time,
 
– Matt
The Art of Good Storytelling

The Art of Good Storytelling

I think about the art of good storytelling often. I try to apply it in my work, movies, and increasingly here on the site. Telling a story properly is something I fail at often and is most usually my first point of criticism when judging my own work.
I’m a straight shooter and tend to get down to the details in an efficient manner, which through necessity is how this site began. Get a large number of bare-bones details up, cover the bases, and slowly develop and iterate over time. At this point almost every entry has been updated about six times between changing the format, adding details, adding maps, and inserting links.
I’ve been failing the story of these properties by taking the easy route.  Some have a waterfall, overlook, or rich history but in Connecticut, for every one of those, there are four that appear as just trails in the woods. And so I must remind myself about my aims to share the wild places of Connecticut and to convey not only what I learn about them but try to capture in words some of the reasons I head out into the woods again and again. So this is my reminder to tell their stories as deeply as I am able.
ExploreCT
I’ve had another productive month exploring the state, though once again it has been limited to the northeast.  I did branch out to Haley Farm State Park just to explore the coast in summer and to check out how it connects north and south in the Groton cross-town trail.  I spent an early morning running a summer solstice trail race at Gay City State Park along the outer red loop.  It felt good to be competitive again, placing 27th out of 172.  I did another trail run with a friend in the Salmon River State Forest from the Comstock Bridge to Day Pond Falls.
I also had two “marathon” days.  One knocking off a bunch of locations in Killingly where the trails were short and overgrown, but filled with little surprises.  My favorite was Cat Hollow with its rich mill history and dam waterfalls.  The second was a loop in Mansfield through about eight different properties which included two overlooks, iron bridges over the Fenton River, mill ruins, and an early American car.  I was really excited about how much was packed into the hike but wasn’t able to execute as well as I had hoped in the movie I made.
Education
Aside from specific research for locations and filming, general knowledge acquisition has been sparse.  In an effort to improve the descriptiveness of my writing I’ve been reading a bit of Edwin Way Teale in the morning with my coffee.  And, if I can fit it into my reading schedule, I’d like to revisit Emerson, Thoreau, and Muir with new eyes.
News Around the State
This section has never received much of my attention and my entries are too infrequent to be useful to any reader so until I can do it properly I’ll just remove it.
Site Updates
I recently added my 200th location, which means I’ve added 41 in the first half of this year.  I have also revised every page to include a trail map (when available), clickable parking link, and added zip codes for better search functionality.  I also decided to remove the contact information from each listing in favor of trail distance, main features/highlights, and my subjective rating.  The ratings are bound to be a bit contentious, but I tried to zoom out and think about the trails from a statewide perspective.  Why or how likely is someone to travel to see a particular place?  My quick guide to ratings:
★- Unmaintained, short hike, or not much to explore
★★- Enjoyable hike
★★★- Great hike with interesting features to explore
★★★★- Great area worth repeat visits
★★★★★- Must-see
Until next time,
 – Matt

Spring So Late It’s Summer

I spent quite a bit of time not writing this and trying to avoid mentioning both the season and my extended absence.  As a result, it’s almost summer and it took me four months to get this out (so I failed at both goals here).  It’s difficult to maintain productivity in all areas, so at least I can say I’m glad that it has been in hiking and adding new locations.

Had I written this three months ago I would have mentioned how it had been a slow winter.  I revisited a few favorites to get a sense of the seasonal differences, but there’s nothing like passing through a green fern glade or a shady hemlock grove to make you appreciate regrowth in spring.  I did end up visiting all the parks of Mansfield (per my last entry).  I hiked both River Park and Merrow Meadow as well as King Riverside and Nedweid to get a sense of the Willimantic River Trail.  I learned of and then hiked Columbia’s Szegda Farm on the same day.  I caught the overlook at Campbell’s Peaceful Valley and the birch grove at Stoppleworth.  After torrential downpour, I snuck a late day hike at the Dorwart Preserve and turned around at the flooded iron bridges over the Fenton.

I followed strange sandwich plate trail markers at Thortonbrook Preserve (in the queue to add) and traveled the mountain bike trails of Moween (in the queue to update) by foot. I hiked the Nipmuck trail section north of Rt. 44 which nearly completes my section hike with just the last mile before the Massachusetts border left, something I’m saving for a special movie.

Speaking of movies, I released my first one in awhile about my hike on the Metacomet at Pinnacle Rock.  I hiked up Rattlesnake Mtn., down Will Warren’s Den, over to Pinnacle Rock, and sought out the 1700s inscriptions on Hospital RockHospital Rock is one of the most visited pages on this site and I knew those two miles of trail would be packed with history and wild wonder.

It’s also finally time to start filming Explore Connecticut: Season 1.  I have three episodes planned and rough ideas for another set.  Now comes the difficult yet rewarding work of piecing them together.  Episode 1 will take place at Gillette Castle and should be ready soon.  I’m excited to try to make my vision match the execution.

Ideas I’m considering for the site:

A “Where to Start” guide

Features like trail distance, main features, and perhaps a rating to the map popups

A gif for each location

Around the State:

CFPA – Events Calendar

June 21st – Summer Solstice Evening Paddle 5-7PM

 

One Year in the Books

One Year in the Books

February marks one full year of running this site, though it has only come together in the last few months.

I am officially in the ‘humble beginnings’ of this site, with a handful of visitors each day. This blog actually seems to be one of the most popular pages, probably because it’s the least daunting place to start. I’ve received some feedback that the blue clusters on the map can be a bit overwhelming, to which I say, good! The scaled view of anything usually looks a bit complex, but zooming in on where you are or where you want to go focuses and hopefully creates new discoveries.


ExploreCT
I hiked five new locations in January. A northern section of the Airline Trail, Sugarbrook Wildlife Management Area, Maples Farm Park, Hopemead State Park, and Whitney Forest. I’ve passed by most of these a number of times and didn’t even know they existed.  Hiking in winter doesn’t provide the best opportunities for photography, but hiking these locations in the quiet winter months was worth the experience.  Of the group, Sugarbrook had the best hiking and I’m looking forward to going back to Maples Farm Park to mountain bike the Bull Run trail.

I also posted my Year in Adventure: 2017. While it features many locations outside CT, I’m pretty pleased with how it came out. I realized I forgot to include a few clips including exploring Pachaug and a burned out car and a couple other locations.

Education
January was spent doing research and prep for the Gillette Castle episode of Explore CT Season 1.  The book, Gillette Castle: A History by Erik Ofgang was a great read and will provide many useful insights.  Did you know that the curved pipe, hunting cap, and “Elementary, my dear Watson” of Sherlock Holmes can be attributed to Gillette’s portrayal?  I was also able to dig up an old Popular Mechanics issue that describes the train that Gillette built on the property and found a clip of the train in operation.

I also picked up a couple books from the DEEP Store’s closeout sale on natural resource topics.  I’ve only had time to skim them, but I hope they will teach me a few things about areas I’m weak in.

News around the State
The Connecticut Forest and Park Association released their Conservation Agenda 2018 Priorities which aims, among other things, to amend the CT constitution to protect public lands, allow towns to collect fees to support open space acquisition, and push for federal policy to strengthen the New England Scenic Trail. The CFPA is holding about 19 events on topics ranging from vegetable gardening, black bears, or apiaries. There are a few guided hikes by land trusts throughout the state including a Valentine for Volunteers by Joshua’s Trust.

I’ve been thinking about an events calendar for hiking and educational opportunities, but am wary of biting off more than I can chew.

Until next time!

Looking Back and Forward to 2018

Looking Back and Forward to 2018

Greetings to a new year, welcome 2018.

This month my photos and movies are being featured in the Willimantic Food Cooperative’s cafe gallery. I built a small display from reclaimed pallet wood, had a few photos printed, and fixed a TV at the center to loop my collection of movies using a Raspberry Pi. It has gotten a great reaction so far!  Thank you for checking out exploreCT.org if the gallery brought you here.

ExploreCT display in the gallery at the Willimantic Food Cooperative

Looking Back

This time of year is for looking forward, but first I’d like to take a moment and recount how far this site has come. The first months of running this site have been a process of tiny steps from rough idea to the version in progress here. It has been a steep learning curve setting a domain and email, hosting my own server, and setting up a custom WordPress. Now that the structure is in place and all the elements are communicating together, I can endlessly tinker until my heart’s content.

In 2017, I added 159 locations to the map:

The current information layout evolved over the course of adding those entries and I’m sure it will continue to change as I get more comfortable in my descriptions and my research deepens. The layout echoes the process I used when I first started making my movies, figuring out where the hike was and then scanning sources for trails, descriptions, and interesting history. Perhaps if hikers begin to use this site, the information will change to suit greater needs than my own. I also have a vision for an “exploreCT 2.0” that is beyond my abilities currently but will be a fun second phase of this project.

Looking Forward

So far 2018 looks like it will be dedicated to filling in the map and exploring as much as I can. I’ve started with the Northeast corner of the state since I’m most familiar with the area, but in the coming months, the map should become more and more complete.

I also plan to start Explore Connecticut: Season One on YouTube.

I’m not certain on some of the details yet, but the rough idea is to do about 12 episodes, similar to my Sleeping Giant movie, highlighting the best hiking Connecticut has to offer.  The season will likely start later in the spring with Gillette Castle State Park.

As always feel free to send me an email at matt@explorect.org

Welcome to ExploreCT

Welcome to ExploreCT


 
Welcome, this site aims to be a complete resource for hiking in Connecticut, featuring all the best hiking trails in CT.  Creating not only a map of locations, but descriptions, photos, and a movie for each.
 
This project started two years ago when Joshua’s Trust (a north-east CT land trust) held their 50th Anniversary celebration.  I decided to visit each property and make a movie about my progress.  I had been hiking in Connecticut my entire life, yet that project opened my eyes to the shear number of explorable locations even in the ‘Quiet Corner’ of Connecticut.
 
The more I dug, the more I found.
 
With this site I get to share what I’ve found, as well as motivate myself to discover more.  Of course, as it says at the bottom of the page, this site is an enormous work in progress.  Getting the bare-bones of each properties location, parking, and available trails is the first phase Then hiking, filming, and taking pictures at each location along with an ever-improving description including identification of plants, topography, geology, and history.
 
It is an education I’m after, to better understand the beautiful wild places of Connecticut.  This site will be the end result and a resource of discovery for others.
 
Email matt@explorect.org with questions, info, to chat, or anything related