New vision for natural treasure

Manchester

May 11, 2004|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

With milk jugs, nets and high spirits, the fourth-graders in Betty L. Smith's science classes descended upon an outdoor laboratory that is only a short walk from their classroom at Manchester Elementary School.

Forest, meadow, bogs, ponds and streams waited to be discovered - along with several miles of trails in the 69 acres that constitute Pine Valley Park and Charlotte's Quest Nature Center.

"It's Manchester's Central Park," said Smith, who has served for six years on the board of the nonprofit Manchester Parks Foundation. "Pine Valley is really undeveloped and meant to stay that way. You won't see ball fields."

Pine Valley is unique in Carroll County. It is the largest such park in any of the county's eight incorporated towns, according to Richard J. Soisson, Carroll's director of recreation and parks. "I don't know of anything larger that's in a municipality."

The park might be little-known outside of town, but the foundation's members have a vision. They are planning to build a larger nature center and hire a part-time naturalist who would staff the center and help with school programs.

Last month, the small, wooden, octagonal nature center reopened after the repair of damage caused by a blizzard in February last year. A new handicapped-accessible walk and bridge to the center also were built by a local Eagle Scout, Shawn K. Hockstad, 17, as his community project.

The center is usually open only for special events, Smith said. The Town Council has agreed to provide money to hire a part-time naturalist, so the center can open at least one weekend day.

Slow progress

"There are a lot of things we want to do," said Brenda Wulforst of Hampstead, the parks foundation secretary. "We're just trying to take it one step at a time ... to make Charlotte's Quest something that's a vision for the future."

The town and the foundation hold Easter egg hunts, a Spring Fest, a youth fishing derby and an annual ceremony at Memory Grove, where people can plant trees in honor of loved ones.

Pine Valley Park Nature Center opened in 1995. In October 2001, two months after the death of Charlotte B. Collett, a former town councilwoman and volunteer, the Town Council voted to rename it Charlotte's Quest.

Charlotte's Quest has since come to mean the whole park, which has one entrance off Walnut Street and a second behind Manchester Elementary, off Wilhelm Lane.

The nature center - which includes a glass wall overlooking a meadow - was a pet project of Collett, a retired second-grade teacher.

Last request

She had a last request of Sharon Hughes, who has served eight years on the parks foundation board and is treasurer and head of the membership and building committees. As Collett's health declined, she told Hughes, "You've got to keep the nature center running for me."

The parks foundation wants a larger nature center, with several classrooms and climate control. Wulforst said they need air conditioning before they can accept the proposed donation of mounted animals from a taxidermy collection.

The center is "just a shell on a concrete slab, and you have to turn the heat on hours before a meeting - because you have to turn it off to hold [the meeting], it's so loud," Wulforst said.

The park receives money from the town - $5,580 in the proposed 2005 budget for portable toilet rental, electricity, repairs and the naturalist, said Kelly J. Baldwin, the town's director of finance.

But the park depends primarily upon volunteers, grants and fund raising, said Smith and others. Volunteers pick up trash and pull up invasive plants by hand.

Smith and her husband, Tom, live nearby and often wander the park - taking note of things that might be interesting when she takes her classes out.

"I know the trails. I helped establish the trails," she said. "I know if there's something cool - I spend a lot of time outside. You learn the changes that occur seasonally."

As soon as she began teaching at Manchester Elementary seven years ago, Smith said, "I started right off going down there."

"We seldom use the building," she said of the nature center. "If I want to be in a building, we'll stay in school. I like to use the outdoors. The forest, pond study - it feeds right into our science studies. We can go out and get our own material to use. ... It's very educational for the students."

When her classes visited recently, "They were looking for green things, plant and animal life, larvae, to take back to look in the microscopes," Smith said.

Minute discoveries

Her 9- and 10-year-old pupils were thrilled to find little worms, the water flea daphnia, and best of all, numerous caddis fly larva in the cold spring. The larva are indicators of a healthy waterway.

"They were very excited," Smith said of her pupils.

Wulforst said the parks foundation is thinking about programs for September when school is back in session, and looking for ways to draw visitors to the park.

"Where else within town limits do you have 60-plus acres? I don't know any place else that can boast that. We want people to know we're here," she said.

"We're just trying to take it one step at a time," she said of plans for the future. Meanwhile, "people can always just come down and walk."

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