Plainfield proud of chestnuts featured on 'Walktober' hike

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Plainfield - posted Mon., Oct. 7, 2013
Walkers saw where four chestnut trees had been reintroduced to the forest. Photos by D. Coffey.
Walkers saw where four chestnut trees had been reintroduced to the forest. Photos by D. Coffey.

Walter Cwynar led a group of more than 20 Walktober participants through the Plainfield Forest Management Area on Oct. 5. Its 97-acres lie adjacent to the Patchaug Forest with its realm of natural wonders. Few people seem to know about the parcel of land at the end of Colbridge Road. So Cwynar and the Plainfield Conservation Commission, which he chairs, wanted to share the wealth. This is the first Walktober event they have sponsored. Based on the response, they may want to schedule more.

With maps of the area in hand, the group set off on an orange-blazed trail. Years ago, a forest ranger identified different species of trees along the path, and those were marked with small placards. The common and Latin name of the tree and information about its fruit, leaves and commercial value were included. Yellow and black birch, red maple, witch hazel, eastern white pine, scarlet and northern red oak and eastern hemlock were a few of those species.

The tree the PCC was most proud of, however, was the American chestnut. Few remain after being nearly wiped out in the early 1900s by chestnut blight. Even now, the trees die off when they reach a certain height, victims of the fungal infection that decimated more than 200 million acres of them. 

After years of research and crossbreeding, a new strain has been developed that scientists and environmentalists hope will restore the species. The PCC invested hundreds of dollars to purchase four seeds. The seedlings grown from them are now one and two years old.
Cwynar took the group single file along a narrow path to an area where they grew. They were just a few feet tall, but they carry the hope that one day the trees will come back.

Commission members selected a planting area. They girdled trees in order to open up the forest canopy. They planted metal sleeves and wire cages around the seedlings to keep varmints away. In the summer, commission members hiked to the site carrying jugs of water for them.

The effort is important not only for the American chestnut, but for the biodiversity of the forest. If the trees are successful, mammals and birds can benefit from the food and habitat it provides. And Cwynar and the other commission members are all for that. The walk was meant to share the wealth of Plainfield’s natural resources.

It was also intended as a history lesson of sorts. Participants were led to a granite quarry where drill holes were evident in great slabs of stone. They saw stone foundations, the remnants of a chimney and a well. Cwynar intends to look into land records in the town hall to learn more about early settlers in the region. Those records date back to 1699 when the town was first incorporated.

Sisters Annie Zvingilas and Dottie Bodo turned out for the walk. They grew up in the area and remembered picking princess pine and blueberries with their mother. “We were the Colbridge girls,” Bodo said. The walk brought back memories of their youth when they played on Tabletop Overlook.

“We were always in the woods,” Zvingilas said. “We loved the woods.”

Kathy Babcock and her husband came from Rhode Island for the event. The Walktober events have drawn them for years. “It’s wonderful to be able to go off in the woods with others,” she said. Babcock enjoys the educational elements of so many of the walks. And she and her husband have gone on so many they see some of the same people over and over. “It feels like they’re acquaintances,” she said.

For Todd and Christina Robida, the walk was a chance to enjoy the nice weather before winter hits. They brought their children, 14-month-old Benjamin and 3-year-old Catherine. “We’re interested in history and the outdoors,” Todd said.

“It’s good for the kids, too,” Christina added.

Commission member Susan Hall said she was excited about the turnout because not many people know the area exists. “It’s open to the public, but no one knows it’s here,” she said.

In its 23rd year, Walktober is The Last Green Valley’s regional event highlighting the history and natural resources of the 35 towns that comprise the National Heritage Corridor. More than 100 walks, hikes, paddles and rides, and 38 events are scheduled.

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