It’s that time of year again. The bleak time. The leaves have gone, but the snow has not yet arrived to coat the barren branches they left behind. Foreboding ice coats morning windshields, and the sun descends surprisingly early. The refreshingly brisk air of early fall has turned bitterly cold and depressingly damp, but the imagined warmth of holiday candles and twinkling lights is still several weeks away. We’re stranded here, between the colorful excitement of fall and the shimmering coziness of winter, surrounded by those skeletal trees.
The phrase “stick season” comes, as far as I can tell, from Vermont, where they seem to take a smug pleasure in its ugliness. But while Connecticutians don’t usually use the term or particularly enjoy the experience, we are also quite familiar with this stark transitional time of year.
Normally, it’s tempting to simply spend a lot of time inside, a sort of indoor time-out between apple picking and sledding. But since going outside is now one of the few ways to safely practice social distancing in Connecticut, I’ve been thinking about how I use the outdoors to help me get through stick season around here.
Perhaps the ideal place to illustrate that it is possible to not just accept but enjoy this season is Chatfield Hollow State Park in Killingworth. It’s one of my favorite outdoor destinations at any time of year, and a recent visit proves that it holds up even when its leaves have fallen.
Find the Silver Linings
We all know that getting outside helps with surviving winter in New England, even when, thanks to snow storms and frigid temperatures, actually making it out the door can feel quite daunting. Compared to those obstacles, it’s positively effortless to get out and about in late fall. Yes, you have to bundle up and bring an extra pair of socks in case what you thought was a bunch of dead leaves was really a puddle. But there are no blizzard warnings, no negative wind chills, and no need to shovel your car out of a snow drift.
Another plus of this neglected season is the lack of crowds. In a popular recreation area like Chatfield Hollow, you might see a few dozen other people, but since they’re spread out over 400+ acres traversed by a wide paved road and many hiking trails, you’ll still feel pretty much alone.
And, if you look carefully and take the time to appreciate nature in all its changes, even this moment has its beauty. The air, despite its chill, smells clear and fresh. The fallen leaves are nourishing the soil. The birds and squirrels, and probably, somewhere, the bears, are preparing for winter. The brooks and rivers flow, chilled but not yet frozen, shining beneath the cloudy sky, because some silver linings are literal ones, and late-fall clouds will often provide them.
Return to Your Favorite Places
This might be a bold statement, but stick season is not the best time to discover new destinations. Of course it can be spent that way, if you want, but I have always found it a better moment for revisiting old favorites, taking them at a slower pace, and observing how they change as the months go by.
For example: in the summer, when Chatfield Hollow is lush and green, it is full of people swimming in Schreeder Pond; groups of children gathering at picnic tables or visiting the Nature Center in the rustic 1937 Oak Lodge; hikers looking for the old Indian caves; and cars wending their way to easy parking beside various highlights, like the barn-red covered bridge and the restored water wheel. Summer is when I first discovered Chatfield Hollow, and I was immediately taken with it. But in November, it becomes a different place. I can walk along the road to the covered bridge and the water wheel without worrying about vehicles passing by. I can stroll the piney beach of Schreeder Pond without seeing another soul. I can watch the water cascading over the stones of the dam and think about the lives of the CCC workers who built it at around the same time they planted those now-towering pines. I don’t know that I would have appreciated all that, had I seen the park in stark November first.
Take the Easy Way Out
If you, like me, tend to think of life as all-or-nothing, eternally torn between going on a hike or sitting on the couch, this season – and places like Chatfield Hollow – are a good reminder that sometimes, there is a middle way. An easy way. And that way can be just as rewarding.
As mentioned above, there are trails here, of varying difficulty. I have hiked a few of them, and I recommend you try them too. But in late fall, when a perfectly good paved road provides an easy, nearly flat, roughly 2.5-mile out-and-back walking path, there’s no need to turn it down. In Connecticut, we have plenty of attractions that require vigorous hikes to reach; but fortunately we also have many other wonderful sights that are easier to get to. And in stick season, doing anything that isn’t sitting on the couch should be celebrated.
Look for Color
Following the greens and blues of summer, and the oranges and reds of fall, this is a muted season. Depending on the weather, late November and early December days can be composed almost entirely of shades of white and grey. But this, too, has its benefits.
First, the lack of foliage makes it easier to spot what had been obscured behind all those bright leaves. The fleeting red of a cardinal, or the black-and-white of a woodpecker, suddenly stand out against bark and bare branches. A painted barn, or covered bridge, becomes the center of the scene. Evergreens, so boring in October, become bright spots. Holly berries pop against drab thickets, lichens look startlingly green, and even the dead, brown leaves, now scattered on the ground, can lend a warm cast to a cold day.
Second, the Land of Steady Habits has always been good at the subtler forms of natural beauty: salt marshes, beach grasses, shells and sand, the steely water of the Sound in spring and the sheen of the iced-over Connecticut in winter. Stick season, though it falls between two celebrated moments of brightness, is no different. And it’s as good a season as any to venture outside.
Info & Notes
Chatfield Hollow State Park
Address: 381 Route 80, Killingworth, CT 06419
In the off-season, the paved road through the park is closed to vehicles, and the only parking lots available are the two just off Route 80. (Only one is marked on the park map.)
As of November 2020, the Paul F. Wildermann Boardwalk is closed. When restrictions change, it’s worth checking out; just a few steps from the main road, it winds through and above a swamp and is one of Chatfield Hollow’s most scenic spots.
As always, when trying to maintain your social distance in Connecticut parks, try to visit early in the day, on weekdays rather than weekends, and/or when the weather is less than ideal.