Behind an abandoned movie theater, just off Interstate 85 and above an urban wetland, 10 young people spent last week blazing half a mile of trails.
Maybe not quite blazing – more like chopping, pulling, digging, filling, grading and bridging half a mile through heat, bugs, brush and matted tangles of English ivy, with the result that the visiting public can have a whole new impression of the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association’s Beaver Marsh Preserve.
“The emphasis was so much on the marsh – this seemed like a way to have a different kind of experience here,” said Cynthie Kulstad, the association’s preserve steward.
The different experience comes through a series of trails just built by a crew from the N.C. Youth Conservation Corps. Eight Triangle-area residents, ages 18 through 22, along with two crew leaders on loan from the youth corps in Vermont, spent five days clearing ways through the trees and underbrush just uphill from the marsh.
“Opening up areas for the public – for this crew, that’s its ideal mission,” said Youth Conservation Corps Director Jan Pender.
This particular area is between I-85 and Club Boulevard, behind a shopping center on Avondale Drive. In the low ground closest to the highway lies the Beaver Marsh itself, a 25-acre wetland with a 10-acre pond. Toward Club Boulevard the land rises to several acres of woods the Ellerbe Creek association (ECWA) has wanted to make more readily available to the public.
“People come out informally, a lot of the (shopping center) workers here, a lot of the neighbors meander through,” said Celeste Burns, ECWA’s conservation director.
“But really our goal is to get people more formally out here. ... We really want (them) to get in nature.”
ECWA has had a long association with the Conservation Trust, which asked whether the association had a likely summer project for the Youth Conservation Corps, Pender said. The Conservation Trust set up the corps a year ago, in consultation with the long-established corps in Vermont, to offer young adults seven-week summer jobs on public-access projects in natural areas – i.e., manual labor at minimum wage, with the side benefits of learning practical skills and practicing environmental stewardship.
“They have to adhere to a lot of not just policies and rules but job expectations,” Pender said, “and if they don’t meet those expectations they get warnings and they can get fired.”
By the middle of last week, some of the crew members were putting finishing touches on the first part of the trail – pulling out roots, tamping soil down firm and making sure the “tread” – trail surface – was at an even grade so rainwater would drain off without erosion.
Some others were at another section rough-cutting – the first stage of cutting out vines, pulling out undesirable brush and digging to create a trail three feet wide with enough clearance on either side a stroller could stretch out both arms without hitting anything. Others were building a boardwalk to carry the trail over one of several marshy spots and stream beds.
“I love the work, and it’s good to get out here and make this stuff happen,” said Jonathan Hill, a Duke University sophomore from Raleigh spending his second summer on a NCYCC crew. “It’d be hard to do it without us.”
The new trail is replacing an existing one that lies closer to the marsh and is subject to frequent flooding, said co-crew leader Amy Rose. “We’re kind of knocking out that trail,” she said. “ ‘De-commissioning,’ we call it.
Kulstad said she expected the Corps crew to finish two trails: the Possum Haw Trail, through the woods from a trailhead off the service road behind the abandoned theater and Compare Foods and Armbridge Street two blocks east and incorporating an existing sewer easement to form a loop; along with one side loop.
“This preserve is probably the western end of a very long expanse of a natural corridor,” said ECWA Director Chris Dreps. Animals can follow a the creek from Falls Lake, and Beaver Marsh visitors have spotted otters, mink, foxes, coyotes and other wildlife that come out of the country and right up to the shopping center.
“How magical,” Kulstad said: within a few hundred yards, “Somebody’s going into Harbor Freight and somebody’s ... ”
“Having in interaction with a coyote,” Burns finished for her.