Hiking through history – Providence Journal review of North South Trail Guide

Dave McCarthy, South County Regional Editor

We met up with Cliff Vanover the other day on Austin Farm Road in the backwoods of Exeter where a bridge carries the dirt road over the Falls River. From the bridge, it’s a 1.45-mile walk to Stepstone Falls on what may be the most picturesque hiking trails in Rhode Island.

Vanover, a well-known Charlestown conservationist and avid hiker, is the author of a recently published guide for traveling Rhode Island’s North South Trail, whether you walk, horseback ride or mountain bike the 77 miles from the Atlantic Ocean to the Massachusetts line.

The book, titled appropriately enough The North South Trail, is first and foremost a hiking guide, but it’s also a history lesson.

Or, as Vanover put it: “There are little bits of history all along the trail; little historic traces, little historic treasures.”

I’ve hiked the trails along the Falls River many times, without benefit of Vanover’s guide. I asked Vanover to walk that section of the North South Trail with me to point out the “treasures” he talks about in his book — those historic traces that I never noticed, or noticed but didn’t have a clue as to what I was looking at.

The National Park Service and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management developed the North South Trail in 1991. From its beginning at East Beach in Charlestown, the trail winds north through western Rhode Island, using a combination of new trails, existing trails, little-used dirt and gravel roads, and several miles of paved back roads.

Using Vanover’s guide, I discovered that the bridge on Austin Farm Road is at the North South Trail’s 31.11-mile mark, or 31.11 miles from East Beach.

Here, the North South Trail follows the long-established Ben Utter Trail into woods that run along the river.

We hadn’t walked much more than a stone’s throw into the woods when Vanover paused to give his first lesson. We had stopped atop a hill that ran long and narrow from the river. I had climbed this “hill” at least a dozen times not knowing that it was half of a former dam.

Vanover pointed to a near-duplicate hill on the other side of the Falls River. Long ago, before the earthen dam was breached, blocks of ice would be cut from the frozen pond created by the dam.

He also pointed to the remains of a foundation cut into the side of the hill: “That’s probably the remains of an icehouse.”

As we walked, he continued to point to old waterworks, a one-time mill race, several ruins and the stone foundation of what most likely had been a very substantial grist mill. “Local farmers would come here and have their meal ground,” Vanover said.

He also reminded that these dams, foundations, mills and all, were dug and built without benefit of machines.

These remnants of Rhode Island history raised a question: What were these people doing out here in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by trees?

“This was a heavily industrialized area for its time,” Vanover answered.

He gave me the explanation contained in his guide:

The woods in which we were hiking are really new growth.

Beginning in the late 1600s, settlers in Rhode Island began clearing the ancient forests for farms, and the industries that supported the farms. The western region of Rhode Island that the North South Trail follows was virtually clear cut 150 years ago.

Standing on the earthen dam, for example, I couldn’t see much farther than a few feet because of dense stands of trees. In 1850 or so, I could have seen for miles from that hill in all directions.

But then the American West began to open for settlement. The rocky, hard-to-work little farms of New England gave way to the mega farms of the Midwest, where the top soil was too deep to measure.

As the Rhode Island farms and their supporting industries failed, the forest reasserted itself.

At the 31.47-mile mark, we briefly left the Ben Utter Trail, with its yellow markings, or blazes, to pick up the blue-blazed Washout Trail. The Washout Trail is also open to horses and bicycles. The Ben Utter Trail is for hikers only.

We weren’t back on the Utter trail for long when, at the 32.11-mile mark, we took a sharp right turn onto the hikers-only, white-blazed River Trail. The Utter trail bent away from the river at this point, whereas the River Trail hugs the Falls River, right to Stepstone Falls and more history.

Just before the falls, there is a footbridge that crosses the Falls River, taking hikers to the falls’ east side, and the best view. The falls are a series of little waterfalls in which the river falls over smooth granite.

I’ve paused at this beautiful site many times to have a snack on one of the flat-topped granite boulders that dot the edge of the river. From the boulders, you can peer down on the falls.

I never noticed, however, what Vanover pointed out to me this day. The boulders have little holes in them, made by hand drills. Once upon a time, someone had started to quarry these boulders.

Nearby, stacked like cordwood, are piles of large, neatly-carved foundation stones and stepstones that had been cut — by hand — from the granite bedrock. One immediately feels for the people who did the work; this was a backbreaking job.

“Someone spent a lot of time here,” Vanover said. “I think it is wild, all this work. It’s kind of mysterious, too. Well, it is mysterious. Someone went through all this trouble, all this work, and here it is, all stacked. The only explanation I’ve heard is there was no market left.”

The River, Utter, Washout and Tippecansett Trails all meet at Stepstone Falls. We headed back to our cars via the Washout Trail, which is open to bikers and horseback riders, as well as hikers.

From that walk, I learned there is a campground for backpackers on a hill overlooking the river, and an equestrian campground not much farther away for those horse and riders doing over-nighters on the North South Trail or other trails in the state-owned Arcadia Management Area.

Vanover hikes the area frequently. “I know Arcadia very well. There are beautiful trails in here few people know about.”

And, he said, “I don’t think most people know what a great thing these trails are for exercise.”

Not all is well in the woods, though. As we walked back, Vanover, a former chairman of the Charlestown Conservation Commission, stopped to inspect a dying hemlock tree, which was being devoured by the woolly adelgid, a hemlock-killing pest from Asia (see companion story). “Unfortunately, there’s not much hope for the hemlocks.”

There are other things to worry about in the forest besides the adelgids.

Before you head into the woods, Vanover urged some precautions:

Lyme disease is a real and constant danger, but the fear shouldn’t keep you off the trails. He suggested a dose of bug spray on your clothes before hiking. He also said hikers should inspect themselves carefully after the hike.

It’s hunting season until the end of February, and for a short period in April when wild turkey are the target. During hunting season, state law requires hikers to wear 200 square inches of flourescent orange. In addition, during shotgun deer season, hikers must wear 500 inches of the day-glo. But Vanover recommends that hikers consider staying out of the woods during shotgun deer season, which runs this year from Dec. 7 through Dec. 22.

The North South Trail is filled with that type of information, including where to camp along the trail, directions to various points if you want to hike the trail in segments, and maps.

Vanover’s book is available at the Map Center in Providence, Borders bookstores, URE Outfitters in Hope Valley and Stedman’s bicycle store in Wakefield.

By the way, it should take you about a week to walk the North South Trail straight through; six days if you’re in great shape.

And at its end, the North South Trail connects with the Midstate Trail, which, like its cousin south of the border, runs north-south through Massachusetts. From the Midstate Trail’s head, it’s 90 miles to the New Hampshire border — or 167 miles from East Beach in South County.