Waking the giant: SGPA volunteer talks about rebuilding Sleeping Giant State Park

By: Aliza Gray

The one year anniversary of the massive tornado that struck Hamden is rapidly approaching, but a re-open date for Sleeping Giant State Park remains as ambiguous as ever.

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Clean-up efforts at Sleeping Giant State Park in Hamden are in full swing with the goal of getting the state park, closed to the public for nearly a year, open and ready for the summer season. Much of the progress made in the last eleven months is thanks to volunteers of the Sleeping Giant Park Association (SGPA). Just days after the devastating EF1 tornado, SPGA volunteers were on scene and working to make Sleeping Giant safe for the public. The project was a massive undertaking, with the to-do list including projects like clearing nearly 2000 toppled trees from the park’s 32 hiking trails. Thankfully, volunteers like Dr. Luis Arata were up to the challenge.

“Each downed tree was a fascinating, dangerous puzzle,” Arata said. “I remember staring at tangled blow-downs and trying to visualize the actions of the trees before I would start cutting. We had to try to predict how a tree would react and move when cut, and how to stay out of harm’s way.”

An Argentinian native, Arata came to the United States in 1968 to pursue higher education. Settling in Hamden nearly three decades ago, Arata now serves as chairperson of the department of modern languages at Quinnipiac University.

For years, whenever he needed an escape from the pressures of professional life, Arata looked no farther than across Mount Carmel Avenue to Sleeping Giant State Park. An avid runner, he’s spent countless hours exploring the park and getting well-acquainted with every twist and turn of its trails. Just months before the storm struck Arata completed the “Sleeping Giant Master Marathon,” an all-day feat that involves covering all marked trails back-to-back - a distance of nearly 28 miles. His accomplishment inspired Arata to deepen his relationship with the park. He made the decision to run for director-at-large on SPGA’s board of directors, and May 6, 2018, Arata was elected.

Days later, the tornado touched down in Hamden, causing millions of dollars in damage, leaving thousands without power and mangling Sleeping Giant. For Arata, the storm hit far too close to home in every sense, as his family’s home sits near the base of the mountain.

“Our house took a direct hit but was miraculously left standing between masses of downed trees,” Arata said. “We were surrounded by a jungle of foliage, massive rootballs, craters, tangled limbs up to the roof. My father’s day gift was a second chainsaw.”

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Immediately after clearing the debris from his own property, Arata shifted his attention to the Giant, joining the SPGA volunteer trail crews in July of 2018. Every Sunday from 9 a.m. until noon, Arata worked alongside about two dozen other volunteers to carefully clear the masses of fallen limbs that cluttered the trails. When Arata joined the team, about two miles of trails had been addressed - leaving about 30 more miles.

“It looked like an absurdly impossible task,” Arata said. “Ray DeGennaro, the SGPA board member directing trail maintenance, had organized teams of four or five volunteers and assigned them to certain trials. We met at the park entrance, we got tools together, hiked up to assigned locations, and got to work cutting the way through.”

As summer turned to fall, the number of volunteers grew and each day the massive clean-up seemed less and less daunting. By September, there were as many as 85 volunteers out on the trails. By the end of January, nearly all of the park’s blazed trails were reopened. With the exception of just two trails, practically all trail clearing that had been done up to this point was the work of volunteers.

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In the early months of 2019, bitterly cold temperatures and frequent winter storms hampered the clean-up efforts. Occasionally, severe wind storms and ice storms were so destructive that volunteers had to go back and redo some of the trails. It’s setbacks like these that are largely to blame for the elusive re-open date. However, since April SGPA volunteers have been firing on all cylinders, and the prognosis is good. Although there is still some work to be done, Arata is optimistic that the community will be able to enjoy the Sleeping Giant in the near future.

“Since Sleeping Giant is a state park, [Connecticut's Department of Energy and Environmental Protection] makes the call, but the trails are nearly clear once more and they’re being blazed again. We can only hope the park reopens soon.”