Father and son repair trails in New Milford area: ‘Forest janitors’


NEW MILFORD – As far back as Noah Wistman can remember, weekends were all about spending time with his dad, James Wistman, helping fix the trails.

“He was in a baby backpack and I was carrying him. As he grew up he wanted to help dad,” said James Wistman, 58, a Manhattan resident who is staying with his parents in New Fairfield on the weekends.

At 23.6 feet tall and 180 pounds, Noah Wistman is now much more useful to his father than in previous years.

On weekends, James Wistman, a Wall Street banker, is a volunteer trail manager with the Connecticut Forest & Park Association, a nonprofit that trains volunteers to help protect forests, parks, walking paths and open spaces. Noah Wistman, a student at Hunter College in Manhattan, is a registered volunteer with the association.

Father and son work side by side every weekend, maintaining 25 miles of trails through Sherman, New Milford, New Fairfield, parts of Gaylordsville and Brookfield.

“We are a team,” said James Wistman, who is also the father of 10-month-old girl Emory Lee.

To date, father and son have volunteered hundreds of hours of their time on local trails.

“There are a lot of storms in the winter and summer, so we regularly hit the various trails to see what needs fixing,” said James Wistman.

On occasion, they will receive a report of a fallen tree or broken steps through the Northwest Connecticut Land Conservancy or CFPA.

“As soon as we can, we’ll go over there with a chainsaw or axes and we’ll get rid of the problem,” James Wistman said.

Other times, they learn about a needed repair by word of mouth at a Sherman cafe.

Because Connecticut is so hilly, bridges tend to get damaged often, James Wistman said.

Create trails

They add a new trail about every year.

Last fall they added a new portion of a Mallory Trailhead trail in Sherman that is steeper and less well developed, for those who want more of a challenge. The work took about two months – with around 20 separate trips in total to the site, Noah Wistman said.

Father and son also extended the Connecticut Blue Trail to New Milford, called Eleanor and John Hunt Preserve. New Milford Mayor Pete Bass came for the dedication, along with descendants of the Hunts, who ceded the land to the public.

“We were in tears talking about it. They were so grateful to me for working on this track with my son,” said James Wistman.

They have also been responsible for reopening trails that had been closed for a few years.

“Vines and shrubs on the trails become impenetrable from storms” and have to be cut, said James Wistman, adding that it takes dozens of hours of work with sheers, pruners and hatches.

James Wistman is a certified sawyer, which allows him to operate a chainsaw on public access trails.

“Noah is the most cerebral,” said James Wistman. “Whenever I use the chainsaw, he is my adviser.”

To clean

However, not all work takes place directly on the trails.

Some weekends, father and son spend their time picking up trash in trail parking lots.

The couple also ride in a canoe, cleaning Squantz Pond for the Candlewood Lake Authority in New Fairfield.

By far, James Wistman said his best experiences to date have been when he’s on the trails and hikers pass by, as he said he enjoys chatting with them.

Whatever their job, they seem to enjoy it all.

“I love nature – even watching animals,” said James Wistman, adding that he especially loves the trails in the winter because of all the animal prints in the snow.

They make repairs with their own materials – often recycling and reusing abandoned items they find along the trails.

During the summer of 2020, the Wistmans saw a huge increase in trail usage, which James Wistman attributes to the pandemic.

“It’s reduced now,” James Wistman said.

In February, when the ground is frozen, they go to the ponds and clean the duck boxes.

“We do it when the ice freezes so you can walk on the lakes. Wood ducks will only nest in hollowed-out boxes over open water so predators can’t reach the eggs,” Noah Wistman said. “We go to shallow spots in various lakes and drill a hole, put some wood chips and logs in there, and then leave it for the ice to melt and the ducks to settle in and nest.”

No job seems too difficult for Wistman’s men.

“I’ll take on almost any challenge as long as I’m prepared for it,” said James Wistman.

father-son bond

James Wistman said he hopes to continue working on the trails with his son indefinitely – and eventually introduce his daughter to them.

“The trails we have here are beautiful. They’re quiet trails and they’re just lovely, if you like Connecticut flora and fauna,” said James Wistman.

In addition to exercising, getting away from city life and feeling like you’ve managed to keep the trails safe, father and son agree that it’s spending time together they love the most.

“It’s a lot of quality time with my son,” James Wistman said. “We talk about everything – work, friends and school.”

“It’s great to be with my dad every weekend,” Noah Wistman said.

Most people who spend time on the trails probably never think about all the work that goes into making their experience possible.

“My son and I call each other forest janitors,” James Wistman said. “We are the guys you never see.”

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