Slayton: Wilgus State Park
07/12/12 7:55AM By Tom Slayton
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(Slayton) When Col. William Wilgus donated his 120 acres of forested land alongside the Connecticut River for a state park, he had no idea that it might someday be a link in a river-long canoe trail. Yet that is precisely what has happened. That, and more.
Col. Wilgus was a spectacularly successful civil engineer in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In his retirement, he became concerned that travelers along Route 5 near his home needed a place to stop and rest, perhaps picnic, in pleasant natural surroundings. And so in 1933, he gave the State of Vermont a pretty slice of riverside land in Ascutney as rest stop for highway travelers. It became Wilgus State Park, and for years it was simply a nice place to leave busy Route 5 for a picnic or a walk in the woods.
The Connecticut was little more than a scenic backdrop. It was not a river to splash in or boat on, because over the years it had become badly polluted. It was described, with some accuracy, as "a beautifully landscaped open sewer." But times change, and today, Wilgus State Park, in the words of its ranger/caretaker, Eric Hanson, "is all about the river."
Today, Interstate 91 is the main highway through the valley, and Route 5 has become a byway carrying mostly local traffic. The river has changed, too, and this change has been for the better. In the 1970s, the Clean Air and Water Act ended the dumping and straight-piping, and the Connecticut gradually came back. Now it is a delight to be on - and Wilgus, as the only developed state park on the river, is perfectly positioned to take advantage of its recovery.
That is, in fact, the story of most Vermont rivers: the law required a cleanup, the rivers healed, and now they are an enormous asset to the communities through which they flow.
Wilgus is now a busy place to camp or boat or fish. It has campsites, shelters, and spiffy little cabins. And it's beautiful! The park overlooks a wide and peaceful stretch of the Connecticut, and so has become an official stop on the Connecticut River Paddlers' Trail, a place where groups come to paddle and camp out by the river, and a good fishing spot that regularly yields large-and-small-mouth bass and walleye.
Perhaps the most unusual entertainment at Wilgus is the nightly flying squirrel show. Every summer evening, an intrepid band of the small, nocturnal squirrels takes turns gliding from Ranger Hanson's stone chimney across the park lawns and into the nearby trees. They look like tiny, furry stealth-bombers as they zip through the gathering dusk.
It's a fun show to watch, and a reminder that nature, ever-present in our lives, is often surprising - and sometimes entertaining as well!