No Walk in the Park

Professor and students wearing bright green cross country t-shirts shown hiking through the trails of Sleeping Giant State Park

Trailblazing

Professor Luis Arata and members of Quinnipiac's cross country teams used GPS to locate blocked trails this spring, bolstering the effort to get the park reopened.

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iking Sleeping Giant Mountain has been a pastime enjoyed — even taken for granted — by many members of the Quinnipiac community for decades. However, in May 2018, everything changed when a tornado ravaged the park and rendered the trails impassable and the park closed.

“It’s a major aspect of life at Quinnipiac that’s just been missing,” said Ben Lanza ’19, a finance major and member of the men’s cross country team. He and three fellow teammates participated in a trail scouting expedition on March 30, along with community volunteers. It was organized by Luis Arata, professor and chair of Quinnipiac’s Modern Languages Department and a member of the Sleeping Giant Park Association. The following day, 13 members from the women’s cross country team joined the effort.

An avid trail runner himself, Arata could sense the students’ eagerness to tackle the mountain once again on this warm spring day. For each of them, the Giant, as the mountain is affectionately known, is a place to practice, test their skills or just unwind.

The Tower Trail, a winding 1.6-mile route, meanders its way to the four-story stone observation tower. It’s been a popular hiking destination for the public and a rite of passage for Quinnipiac students, some of whom practice yoga at the summit or simply take in the views of the Mount Carmel Campus below and the surrounding valleys.

The SGPA had hoped the park would open for Memorial Day Weekend, but ongoing work made a late June reopening more likely.

“We rely on these trails,” said Jeff Venter ’21, a physical therapy major and one of Lanza’s teammates. “We use them all the time, and it just feels nice to give back.” They especially like the Diamond and Violet trails near the back.

Before they set out, Arata told the assembled volunteers, “Remember, this isn’t a race today — it’s a service to a park that means so much to so many people.”

Runners from across Connecticut joined members of the SGPA and students, faculty and staff from Quinnipiac during the two-day effort. They broke off into groups using AllTrails, an outdoor mobile app that uses GPS tracking to pinpoint the locations of “leaners” — fallen trees resting against other trees — and other dangerous objects and debris still obstructing parts of the seven trails.

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After several hours, the volunteers returned to the base. They were tired and sweaty, some a bit scratched up, but in high spirits, energized by their trek up Sleeping Giant. Arata knows that feeling well. His love for the mountain dates to 1982, when he first began walking its trails with his wife, Laurie. “I remember carrying our oldest son up there in a baby backpack before he could walk,” he said.

Seeing the trap rock mountain became a daily treat for Arata once he joined Quinnipiac’s faculty in 1991. Over the years, his walks became runs, and he developed a favorite seven-mile route. In 2018, he completed the Master Marathon, running all blazed trails in 10 hours. After triumphing over this challenge, Arata yearned to play a role in the park’s upkeep.

The SGPA was established in 1924 by local residents concerned with ongoing trap rock quarrying on the tract near the Giant’s head. The state park was created that same year when the SGPA donated 600 acres to the state Park and Forest Commission. The state added an additional 65 acres later that year.

“The task of maintaining its 30-plus miles was always a source of wonder for me,” said Arata, who joined SGPA in 2016 and was elected director-at-large in May 2018. Just over a week later, the tornado struck, and Arata was given a chance to give back in a way he’d never imagined.

“The amount of destruction was just overwhelming,” he said.

After the magnitude of the damage was realized, Arata took a course on safe chainsawing and joined the volunteer cleanup effort in early July, becoming a lead sawyer with one of 14 volunteer crews. Nine months and 2,700 hours later, he and his peers had cleared nearly 2,000 trees.

During the 2018-19 winter, snow, ice and wind caused many weakened trees and branches to fall, creating more work. That’s when Arata had the idea to organize small teams of trail runners and take different loops to scout all the trails. Work crews used the data gathered by volunteers to find specific locations in need of clearing when their cleanup work began in April.

“It was an unforgettable experience for everyone,” Arata said. “I still can’t believe a group of volunteers could do what was done in such a short period of time.”

With a nod to the reopening, Hiroya Tsukamoto performed a free concert at Quinnipiac in April that included a song he wrote titled, “To Hobbamock,” the Native American spirit who is an integral part of Quinnipiac’s “Legend of the Bobcat.”

According to the legend, Hobbamock was doomed to eternal sleep when a spell was cast over him, but his ferocious companion, a stealthy giant bobcat, was spared such a fate and loyally defends its now Sleeping Giant and all that falls in its shadow.