A place to love and preserve

More than 100 brave a cold evening for food, a hike, stories and songs at a Winter's Feast in Patapsco Valley State Park

March 07, 2007|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,special to the sun

As day turned to night and the sky faded from blue to pink to purple over the Patapsco Valley, Lee Moser led a small band of hikers back to the pavilion where Friends of the Patapsco Valley and Heritage Greenway was hosting its Winter's Feast.

Moser, a board member with the nonprofit organization, known as FPVHG, had taken the 20 or so hikers down to the Patapsco River so he could point out a damaged dam that needs to be removed and the spot where he would like to see a pedestrian bridge across the water.

But mostly, the point of the hike was to enjoy the feel of the bracing air, the sight of the setting sun and the sound of water rushing in the river, simple pleasures that often are neglected in the last days of winter.

Back at the pavilion, kids were bopping balloons back and forth through the air while Sam "the Muleman" Miller sang and played "Whole Lotta Shaking Going On" on his guitar.

The fourth annual Winter's Feast attracted more than 100 people, who braved a cold March evening for hamburgers and potato salad, a hike, stories and songs. As the three-hour event drew to a close Sunday, children toasted marshmallows in the pavilion's stone fireplace, while adults sat at the long tables, holding warm cups of coffee.

A donation jar was on one table, and there were plenty of brochures and pamphlets about the organization for anyone who was interested.

Surveying the scene was Kit Valentine, who founded the FPVHG in 2000 and seemed happy with the turnout. Valentine, president of the organization, said the goal of the Winter's Feast is to get people into Patapsco Valley State Park and to introduce them to the group. When people use the park, he said, they are more likely to work to preserve it.

The organization has about 200 members, including an 18-member board, and is involved in all aspects of improving and appreciating Patapsco State Park - from researching its history to working with the state on improvements such as the pedestrian bridge that Moser described.

Valentine, a retired environmental engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers in Washington, has been involved with the park for decades. In the 1950s, when he was a student at Catonsville High School, he built a nature trail in the McKeldin section of the park as an Eagle Scout project, he said. That trail is there today, he said.

But more recently, when his daughter-in-law, Kathy Valentine, a fourth-grade teacher at St. Timothy's School in Stevenson, asked him about the history of the park, "I had to tell her I didn't know," he said.

That was the catalyst, Valentine said, to starting FPVHG. In 2000, he marshaled a loose coalition of people interested in the park and created the organization. "It was a very informal group before that," he said.

The sprawling park, created in 1907, was one of the first in the state, and is made up of many sections, including Avalon, Orange Grove, Hollofield and Hilton. Activities in the park include hiking, biking, canoeing, picnicking, fishing and tubing. Many of the sections have playgrounds.

Over the years, the park has grown; it is now about 14,000 acres. But Valentine wants to see more growth, and his organization has its sights on several parcels of land, he said.

The park runs along the Patapsco River for about 32 miles in four counties. The river's watershed is in Howard, Baltimore, Carroll and Anne Arundel. That means the FPVHG works with the state and the counties, Valentine said. The state's Department of Natural Resources runs the park, but the counties control development near it, Valentine said.

Steve Shreiner, a board member who was on the hike, is an environmental scientist and donates time to the organization. As the hikers reached the water's edge, he pointed to Union Dam, which is nearly 100 years old and originally supplied power to the J.W. Dickey Textile Mills in Oella.

Part of the dam was swept away by Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972, and now water that runs through the gap could rupture a nearby sewer line, Shreiner said. He wants the state to take out more of the dam, so the water isn't pushed as much to one side.

The organization also researches the history of the valley and creates interpretive signs in places like the tourism center in Ellicott City and the park visitors center in the Avalon area. It developed a map that highlights 15 historic sites along the river.

The group organizes park cleanups - lots of them.

When the group was formed in 2000, volunteers did one cleanup in the fall and one in the spring, Valentine said. Last year, there were 18 organized cleanups. This year, he is hoping for 25.

The group has grown in part because of activities such as the Winter's Feast, which brings people to the park. Betsy McMillion, the stream watch coordinator, organizes cleanups as well as the Winter's Feast and the Garlic Mustard Challenge.

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