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The Ken Weber Conservation Area at Cascade Brook is not your typical walk in the woods

By Paul Lonardo

“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better” — Albert Einstein

You’ll find the entrance to this hiking trail off the beaten path, but it is clearly identified by the big, colorful sign. Between a photo of Ken Weber near an area waterfall and a map of the walking trail is this inscription: Ken Weber, a Smithfield resident and Rhode Island premier naturalist for over 30 years, had a passionate and childlike wonder of nature. Cascade Brook was one Ken’s favorite places, where he and his wife Bettie laid out the trail you are about to enjoy. While you are here, think of Ken, and look at nature as if you are seeing it for the very first time, as he so often did.

Access is on Mapleville Road off Putnam Pike, just before Waterman Reservoir. Follow the sign for Village at Waterman Lake and continue past the assisted living facility entrance. Where the paved roadway ends, the Ken Weber Conservation area at Cascade Brook begins, so there is sufficient parking away from any traffic. Even the road noise from Route 44 is respectful to one of Ken Weber’s favorite nature walks.

You will immediately take note of the trees marked with blue paint. They will guide you through the walk. You can’t miss them. You’ll spot them on rocks, as well. The trail was laid out and marked by Ken and his wife, Bettie.

Not too far into the walk, you will come across a colorful, hand-painted wooden box on a post. There is a hinged top that opens, and inside you’ll find a small notepad and torn-out pages that people have jotted down their names or thoughts about the conservation area. You are welcome to read what others have written, and there is a pencil inside for you to include your name for posterity, or your own observations of the walk, as the path will take you back along this spot on the way out.

The trail makes a loop through the Smithfield woods, and is a little more than a mile long, but it is a bit challenging due to the moderate climbing ability that is required, particularly as the path wends up, down and around rolling hills and over various-sized rock formations, which if wet or damp requires some care to traverse. Making it a bit more challenging, and fun, are the fallen trees that become obstacles in some places. One downed limb blocking the path had to be chain-sawed to accommodate hikers who are not Olympic hurdlers.

When you start to hear the sound of running water as you near a waterfall, you’ll know you are in the heart to this conservation area. The gurgling Cascade Brook is what the 27-acre property was named for, and in all but the driest of months you can see it cascading down a ledge of rock into a shallow pool about ten feet below. When the leaves are thin on the trees and the sun is bright on a late spring or early fall day, it looks like something out of an Ansel Adams landscape print.

Besides the waterfall, this conservation area features some spectacular outcroppings, immense boulders, old stone walls and stately stands of maple, beech and oak trees.

A little more than half way around the loop you’ll come across what remains of a little house, featuring a four-fireplace chimney dating back more than a hundred years, as well as the remnants of a picnic area that had been built for the children of a former orphanage that once owned the land.

As you trek west along the northern edge of the conservation area on your way back, you’ll catch a glimpse of Steere Orchard in a clearing, and during harvest season you’re sure to smell apples ripening on the twisted branches of apple trees clustered in neatly arranged rows.

It won’t take long to get through this natural playground, but take your time to explore the terrain and climb up some of the rock formations. You’ll be glad you did. One thing to be wary of is the poison ivy and other plants that may cause rashes and itching.

Ken Weber is someone who has looked deep into nature, and so can you by visiting the Ken Weber Conservation Area at Cascade Brook. You may not want to look away from all that nature has to offer there, but as you remain watchful of fallen trees and slippery algae-covered rocks underfoot, keep an eye out for painted rocks and be sure to pick one up. Collecting one of these special rocks from each of the Seven Scenic Walks in Smithfield this year will automatically make you eligible to win prizes.