The trees are dense, the path is narrow, and everywhere, there’s the sound of water. I hike to a clearing and hear a waterfall dashing against rocks below, sending clouds of mist wafting over my trail. This is my first stop on a journey down New England’s southernmost “wild and scenic” river, the Eightmile.
My trip began at Devil’s Hopyard State Park -- a place I always thought had one of New England’s more unique names. So I asked my guide, Rob Smith, where it came from.
“There’s lots of different tales,” said Smith, who was park manager here for 10 years. “They attributed the potholes to the devil as he was coming up, climbing up over the rocks here -- getting his tail wet. And his cloven hooves, as he leaped from place to place going up the falls, created these potholes.”
Today, Smith and I are exploring a part of the park where the Eightmile River runs through. The river’s watershed encompasses 40,000 acres of forests, fields, and fast-flowing cool rivers.
It’s a beautiful spot. So pristine, that in 2008, Congress designated parts of the area “wild and scenic.” Those are rivers designated by Congress as having a special natural and cultural importance.
In New England, there are more than 65,000 miles of river, but, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, less than one percent of those miles are classified as wild and scenic.
Tony Irving, one of the many volunteers who worked to get that designation for the Eightmile River, said part of the reason is the watershed’s distance from cities like Hartford and New Haven. That distance kept the environment looking like Connecticut would have before Europeans settled here.
“This area isn’t on the way to any place,” Irving said. “It was sort of an area that didn’t really get developed at all.”
“Sort of,” because there was some development, just not much.
As we hop in a car to travel from the Eightmile’s western branch to its eastern side, Irving and Smith explained how colonists had a lot of trouble farming here. The soil was rocky, which made it hard for villages to expand. And when the West opened up, populations dropped.
Still, as I learned a few miles later in the town of Salem, some families stuck it out.
“We’re walking down what was the original road through here,” said David Bingham, whose family, through marriage, has a history on this land going back to the mid 1700s.
As we walk down an old path toward a century-old bridge, that history is alive -- pillared in nearby sugar maples, which tower above new forest.
“Along the old road here -- you can see the large trees, which were once the shade trees for the road itself,” Bingham said. “This would have been the main thoroughfare when my father was young.”
As we talked, a tiny winged visitor interrupted, an iridescent insect, which perched on Bingham’s neck.
“Don’t worry about it,” Bingham said, as I gently brushed the insect away. “That’s a damselfy. It’s actually fun to watch them come -- and they actually slap the water in the stream.”
Bingham said it’s interesting to watch the insect through binoculars, where you can actually see its eggs breaking the water’s surface tension.
As we walked, Bingham pointed out more wildlife. There are state-listed rare plants, which helped the area get its “wild and scenic” title. There are invasives, which he said present new challenges, and then there was just the beauty.
A turkey vulture soared overhead. And between the natural sounds and flowing water -- it was hard to leave, but Tony Irving had a schedule to keep. He was eager to show off the river.
“Okay, we’re onto our next spot,” Irving said, “The Ed Bills Pond dam.”
Back in the car, I tell Irving I actually visited this spot in 2015. Back then, the 80-year-old Ed Bills dam was holding back a lot of water. Creating a big pond in the river, which Irving said sat unshaded, baking in sunlight.
“It was literally warming up the rest of the river,” he said, which was bad news for fish like trout, which prefer the Eightmile’s colder water.
Eventually, conservancy groups took the dam out, and basically, rebuilt this part of the river. Irving said they used old photos to see how it flowed and recreated the Eightmile’s path with rocks and other guiding pieces of “armor.”
“To sort of talk the river into saying, ‘Yeah, you remember this? You remember this?’” Irving said. “Well, we’re going to just help you remember a little bit more by putting a little armor here to help direct that waterflow.”
Water, which flows down to where the east and the west branches of the Eightmile River converge -- what’s called the river’s “Main Stem.”
Now we’re at the end of our journey. A short car ride takes us to a dam and an old mill that’s really close to the terminus of the river. We’re near Hamburg Cove, where the Eightmile dumps into the Connecticut River, about eight miles north of Long Island Sound. That’s where the Eightmile gets its name.
Irving lives nearby. He moved here a while back, and he’s never stopped appreciating the river.
“Oh, this is my church. It really is my church,” Irving said.
Giving him a spiritual connection and, he said, an ecological one. A diverse array of wildlife and habitat -- all of which combine to make the Eightmile River “wild,” “scenic,” and maybe, a little mystical.