PORTSMOUTH — Our good friend Tom Willett, a local resident, turned us on to this sweet little walk through Oakland Forest. The preserved, 20-acre sanctuary on Aquidneck Island, just minutes from bustling downtown Newport, was a former Vanderbilt-owned estate. Remnants of the picturesque summer farm, including the signature Vanderbilt gates and towering rhododendron hedges that once lined a carriage road, can still be seen. But the real draw is the old-growth forest, including a rare stand of 200- to 300-year-old American beech trees.
If you looked at an aerial map of the area, you’d see the small green patch of the forest surrounded by development; condos and houses crowd its edge and fan out from the preserve. The forest was on its way to being cleared, too, needed as a septic field for more condo development, until local arborist Matt Largesse announced that some of the trees on the site were centuries old and should be saved.
It seemed to be a preposterous idea. Historians pointed out that most of the forests in this area had been torched by fleeing British soldiers during the Revolutionary War. But scientists examined a chunk from a fallen tree, and sure enough, the surviving stand was precious, old, and rare.
We crossed an open meadow, walked over a small foot bridge, and entered the forest. Come summer, it is dense and shady here, a great place to come on a hot day to escape the heat and tourist hordes. Our last visit was on a brisk, early spring day and welcome sunlight filtered through the trees as we walked the loop trail, littered with layers of crushed, copper-hued beech leaves. The beginning of the trail was a bit soggy, and dominated by mature river birches and red maples. But soon, as we gained ground, stands of towering beech trees took over the landscape. The American beeches were easy to recognize, their light gray trunks ramrod straight and smooth, almost skin-like. Some had shallow, exposed roots that looked like crawling forest creatures. We spotted a massive tree, probably one of the oldest in the forest, which had split in two, perhaps struck by lightning. We followed the trail through the jungle-like rhododendron hedge.
“My favorite tree is just up here,” Willett said, as we followed him to the base of an imposing, prehistoric-looking beech, with a huge, wide canopy that towered above the others. “This tree is one of the grandest, and I have a feeling that it might be the oldest in the forest.” It was a beauty.
We continued along the path, spotting patches of wild chives and yellow-flowered ginger, and listening to the sounds of a nearby downy woodpecker, which we later spotted perched and pecking on a tall red maple tree. We stopped to admire the “elbow tree” with a distinctive bent-arm branch, and marveled at how new trunks grew from old stumps and rotting roots. We also noticed that percolation test holes dug in anticipation of development remained. “They’re left as reminders of what could have happened,” Willett explained.
We could have easily been distracted by the close call, the what-ifs, and thoughts of other forests forgotten. Instead, we simply enjoyed our short jaunt through this unlikely, sun-filtered oasis.
For more information and trail map, visit www.ailt.org. From the Newport Bridge, take East Main Road (Route 138 north) to Union Street. Take a left on Union Street, then take the first left on Carriage Drive. Proceed through the subdivision to the bottom of Carriage Drive. The small parking lot and trailhead are on the left.