I Came, I Sawmilled, I Turned Around
Curtis Woodland, Durham
I don’t believe in omens. But if I did, hoo boy, I’d have never bothered entering the woods here in northwest Durham. And maybe, due to my experience here, I’ll start believing such things a tiny bit more.
Curtis Woodland has been a protected open space since the late 1960’s. It is named in memory of former selectman and conservationist Gregory C. Curtis. He’s the one most responsible for protecting these 183 acres of old field, stream, and woods. In fact, Durham was a leader in open space protection back during the Presidents Kennedy and Johnson years. Pretty cool, and Curtis was certainly worthy of recognition.
Unfortunately, in 2023 anyway, the town of Durham has not kept up with the property very well. In fact, the main red-blazed loop trail in more or less impassable.
But like I said, the tea leaves were there to be read.
I initially parked at a pull out beneath the handsome sign marking the corner of the property. An old dirt road continued north off of Dunn Hill Road and it seemed like a logical place to park. I hopped out and began walking up the gated dirt road. I was promptly greeted by a Doberman (or Doberman adjacent) barking dog. He was from the nearby house and, well, I’m not super jazzed about attack dogs warning me away.
Turns out, he was just trying to tell me not to bother with this hike.
I returned to my car because I didn’t want the dog between me and safety. I walked further along Dunn Hill Road and… found a large proper hiker’s lot. Ah, that’s better. Not only that, the trail’s blazes were clear and gave me false confidence all was well.
I headed off on a clockwise loop, first through the unmowed field and then into the woods. That’s when I saw the second bad omen…
The trail’s first blazes on a tree covered in poison ivy. A perfectly normal thing of course, but I don’t know… it’s a bad sign to me. I continued downhill on a decent enough trail, but I did immediately notice it became more overgrown with each passing minute.
Mr. Curtis died in 2002 and this parcel was dedicated to him in 2004. At some point between then and now, studies were done and trails were blazed. A scout camp existed here at one point, and it is clearly a pretty cool chunk of Durham.
As the trail approached Sawmill Brook, it began to disappear. The blazes are still here, so I continued. I found myself fascinated by the rushing brook, as it was milky. Like, really milky. While writing, I just spent a goodly amount of time trying to discern if this milkiness is ever-present and what was the cause of it. I found nothing, but find it curious that just a few miles away Durham has a “Cream Pot Brook” and “Cream Pot Road” and “Chalker Brook” and “Chalker Road.” I really thought there was some connection to “cream” and “chalk” and this stream, but… I got nothin’.
Nothin’! Sawmill Brook does flow northeast and appears to begin near the nasty Tilcon quarry that straddles the Wallingford border. Maybe that’s it? I really don’t know, but it was a little weird. (A Facebook commenter, who I know knows her stuff, blames Tilcon as well. She also notes that the Boy Scouts used to maintain this property.)
Also weird? That this trail has just been absolutely swallowed up by nature from this point onward.
Yet… I forged ahead. I’ve never had Lyme Disease and I try to limit my possible exposure to it. If I do get it in late 2023, this is where I got it. (I always wear long pants, long socks, spray my shoes and pant bottoms with picaridin, and check myself pretty thoroughly after any hike through grasses. But you just never know…)
The trail was entirely gone, but I was in a floodplain along the brook, so I continued following the blazes hoping that once away from the immediate area, the trail would open up again. I crossed Sawmill Brook a few times on sketchier and sketchier “bridges,” the last of which was a small tree limb.
As I whacked my way through all sorts of overgrowth, I peered as far as I could. I could see no improvement at all. In fact, it seemed to actually get worse as it headed north towards the backside of the Lyman Orchards golf course.
I decided this was stupid and turned around. Doubling my Lyme opportunity.
After reaching my car, I took a stab at the loop counter-clockwise. In the field, the dog wasn’t a concern but once I hit the woods again, I encountered the same overgrowth. Oh well.
It wouldn’t take much to clean this place up. Maybe there are plans to do so. Maybe at the time you’re reading this, Curtis Woodland is a beautiful property with a lovely trail system. That’s how these things work once in a while. I’ve found that trails maintained by towns are often the most poorly maintained. Some are town employee responsibility, some are still volunteer. All are hard work and I appreciate that.
But as a reporter, of sorts, I gotta report what I gotta report. But please do let me know if and when this place improves.