Four years and two miles ago, the Norwalk River Valley Trail in Wilton existed only on paper. Today, the trail is long enough to host a 5K.
Saturday, May 20, marked another milestone in the trail’s development as the ribbon was cut on a 200-foot boardwalk that traverses wetland in the section that links Autumn Ridge Road and Twin Oaks Lane. Trail officials are ready to add another 2,000 feet to get to Skunk Lane. All they need is $80,000.
“We are very fortunate we have all our permits in place,” Pat Sesto, the Ridgefield committee member and Wilton’s former environmental director, said at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. She announced that the Wilton Loop is part of the Connecticut Trail Census project, and a count during five weeks from December into January showed 4,000 people using the trail, which was about one and a half miles at that point.
“We’re doing really well,” she said. With Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling and his wife, Lucia, in the audience, she added that an upcoming trail segment will be the “first inter-town connection going from Wolfpit Road down to Grist Mill.” For its part, she said, Norwalk “has been fabulous … they put up funding, they put up services, engineering, securing grants.”
The two-mile section from Wolfpit to Grist Mill, known as Wilwalk, will be built with a $1.2-million state grant, which the trail needs to match with $275,000. Charles Taney, NRVT executive director, said $160,000 has been raised so far, mostly from nearby corporations that see it as a quality-of-life benefit.
For its part, Norwalk has built a section from the terminus at Calf Pasture Beach to Union Park, and work is progressing on a one-mile segment from the Norwalk Library to Route 123.
“I may be optimistic in saying this,” Taney said Saturday, “but in six to seven years you may be able to bicycle from Cannondale Village to Long Island Sound.”
In her remarks Saturday, Sesto thanked several donors, including Cliff and Norma Fox, Greg and Gina Jensen, and Jennifer Toll. She also thanked the Wilton Woman’s Club, whose $30,000 donation last year “put them over the top” in building the boardwalk. She acknowledged Kate Throckmorton for donating the drawings the trail needed for a special permit to build the parking lot at Autumn Ridge, the Wilton Police Department for its continuing help, particularly when there was a coyote spotted on the trail this winter, the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), which raised money for an ATV should someone be injured on the trail, and Rob McWilliams, who leads a cadre of volunteers who maintain the trail by cleaning up fallen limbs and the like as well as working to eradicate invasive Japanese knotweed.
“Those may seem like little things,” Sesto said, but when they don’t have to be paid for, they add up.
Taney announced that individual donors have pledged $100,000 for the next segment to Skunk Lane, which can proceed as soon as another $80,000 is raised. Trail officials are hoping work can begin in the fall.
That portion of the trail will be built, as have all the others in Wilton, by Timber & Stone LLC.
Trail builder Josh Ryan said he and his crew have a special affinity for the Wilton Loop, where he has seen children graduate from walking as toddlers to riding bicycles, and those who use the trail come to cheer them on as they are working.
“We do 25 to 30 projects a year,” he said, “and this is our favorite.”
When asked what makes this project so special, he said, “There’s a ritual everyone has.” He pointed to stones that mark the edge of the trail.
“Everyone has a tree or a stone they touch” when they get to a point where the trail ends “and then they turn around and run back. Some do pushups and run back. Sometimes a couple will come holding hands, they touch a stone, and go running back.”
It was not something he’d seen before, and it’s not always the same people.
Based in Calais, Vt., he and his crew work in Vermont and surrounding states, and what sets this project apart from the others is the scale.
“To have a 10-foot-wide bi-directional trail is unique,” he said, adding that having 4,000 users over a six-week period is “amazing.”
“It’s like a legacy trail,” he said. “It’s going to change how people interact.” The leg from Autumn Ridge to Twin Oaks is conserved land, so there are some old-growth trees, including “gigantic shagbark hickory and oaks. It dwarfs our other projects in scale and ecology.”
As if that were not enough, he said of the upcoming segment, “there are a lot more interesting things ahead.”
Cliff Fox, one of the donors recognized on Saturday, said he and his wife, Norma, are outdoor-oriented people who love to hike.
“We missed the beginning of the trail,” he said, “but when we finally learned about it, we were happy to get involved. When you walk along the trail, you see so many people.
“This is the biggest thing the town has needed that we didn’t know,” he said.
When completed, the eight-mile Wilton Loop will run from Wolfpit up to Cannondale, across Route 7, through Allen’s Meadow, down past the schools, Trackside and Wilton Center and back to Route 7 near Orem’s Diner. In Wilton Center it will pass through Schenck’s Island and past Horseshoe Pond.
In its entirety, the trail is planned as a 38-mile connection from Calf Pasture Beach to Rogers Park in Danbury, passing through Wilton, Ridgefield and Redding along the way.
For information on how to get involved, visit nrvt-trail.org or call 203-563-0180.