Thursday, November 13, 2014

Schuylkill Banks (Urban Hike)

Pierce Park skateboard daredevils  with Philadelphia Art Museum in background
Kali and I have walked the "natural areas" within easy striking distance of our house so many times we decided we needed a change of scenery.  So, last Sunday (November 9), I proposed an urban walk though central Philadelphia.  When I reminded Kali we could stop for a gelato midway through the walk, she was hooked.  (I got a double with grapefruit and dark chocolate, and Kali got chocolate and pistachio, by the way).

While I like our urban walks in general (I love to go downtown), I had an ulterior motive for this trek (other than gelato).  The city of Philadelphia is gradually constructing a recreational pathway alongside the Schuylkill River (the city's "western" river, as opposed to the much larger Delaware that flows along the city's east side).  The recreational path and associated green space is called the Schuylkill Banks and it is immensely popular with walkers, runners, bicyclists,  skaters, and skateboarders.

The easy parts of the trail have been built, but the city ran into a dilemma where a set of freight railroad tracks was located very close to the edge of the river.  The city's solution for continuing the trail in this location was to build the trail out into the river on concrete pylons anchored into the bedrock below the silt.  Because the Schuylkill is subject to flooding and bears lots of flood-borne debris, the structure had to be very sturdy but also aesthetically pleasing.  I think that the city and its design team succeeded masterfully.  The trail surface is poured concrete etched to look like wooden planks. 
Kali about to enter the over-water section of the trail
Detail of one of the handsome granite entrance posts to the over-water section
Another entrance post detail
The over-water trail at river level
The trail currently/temporarily ends at the South Street Bridge (yes, that South Street made famous in the pop song).  There were literally hordes of people on the bridge taking pictures very similar to the one below.  I had to jostle to the railing to get a shot.  The over-water section of the trail has only been open for about a month, so it's still drawing plenty of touristas - including Kali and me.  The view below filled me with civic pride and gratitude that we're living near a vibrant, exciting city.
View of the over-water trail and Philadelphia from the South Street Bridge
After we walked the Schuylkill Banks, we headed into the city for our gelato fix.  Our route back to our car took us past the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which has added a considerable number of contemporary sculptures to its grounds.  The piece on the left in the image below is called Symbiosis, and depicts (in gleaming stainless steel) a broken tree that has crashed into and is partially supported by a smaller neighboring tree.
Symbiosis (left) and another structure whose title I didn't notice

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Autumn Trail Ramble

Last Saturday afternoon (November 8), Kali and I decided to walk the rail corridor that our county is converting to a trail.  I have mentioned this rail-to-trail conversion in earlier posts; it will bisect my preserve and will undoubtedly introduce all sorts of undesirable behavior into the midst of my natural area.  On the other hand, it will allow me to gain access to a trail less than 0.5-mile from my house and ride my bicycle for 15 miles (one way) without even getting on a road.  So, I have conflicting reactions to the conversion.

The steel tracks and the wooden ties have been removed, so the corridor is already being heavily used even though the final trail surface (crushed limestone grit) is not yet installed and the old railroad ballast is rough and uneven.
A fallen limb festooned with bracket fungi alongside the corridor

View from one of the three railroad bridges spanning the creek within my preserve
A rock cut
The railroad builders in 1876 took full advantage of the creek's erosive action and placed the rail-bed as close to the creek as they could to avoid cutting and filling.  But, in some places, steep rocks sloped sharply down to the creek and the builders couldn't avoid making cuts.  There are at least four such rock cuts in my preserve, including one where a horrendous head-on collision occurred in 1921 that killed 27 people.  That rock cut is known as "Death Gulch."

There are also several stone quarries alongside the railroad line, including one very impressive quarry with a sheer wall at least 60 feet high with plenty of huge boulders at the foot.  Rock climbers have long begged us for permission to climb there (we've always turned them down, reasoning that rock climbing is incompatible with our mission as a natural area).  Now that the trail conversion has begun, I'm getting reports that climbers are drilling holes in the rocks in order to set climbing screws, and people are using the large rocks at the bottom of the face for bouldering.  This is only the beginning of the types of intrusions that are sure to increase.
A slow stretch of the creek from the vantage of another railroad bridge
As Kali and I neared the end of our return walk, I looked over to the east and noticed the buck in the image above.  He was about 200 feet from the rail line and wasn't perturbed at all by our presence (though deer are hunted in our preserve).  As we watched him for a minute, I noticed why he wasn't running off - a doe was slightly upslope and 50 feet away.  I think he had amorous intent.  As she moved away, browsing all the while, he never let her get very far ahead of him.
Late afternoon sun glinting on the creek
The trail is set to open officially late next summer (2015).  Since I intend to retire in May 2018, I'll have 2-1/2 years to deal with the repercussions of/enjoy the trail.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Class Field Trip

High School Park Restoration Manager Kevin (bearded, far left) with students
On Friday, November 7, I accompanied my Ecological Restoration students from the University of Pennsylvania on a field trip to High School Park in one of Philadelphia's "inner ring" suburbs.  I've written about High School Park in several earlier posts.  The park is the site of the municipality's original high school, which was abandoned when a new school was built in another location, fell into decrepitude, and was finally razed.  Since then, the 11-acre park has been adopted by a "Friends" group, which has been working to restore the riparian woodlands, up-slope forests, and hilltop plateau with native plants.
Stairs leading from former athletic fields to the hilltop location of the old school
Our guide for the trip was the Friends' Restoration Manager, Kevin.  Although the site is small, it is overrun with invasive plants.  Because the park is public property, Kevin is not authorized to use herbicides.  In addition, he has no help other than volunteers that he can cajole into working.  In my opinion (and experience), he's fighting a losing battle, but he is supremely dedicated to the work and to the Friends.
Along a mid-slope forest trail
Because the park is located in an "inner ring" suburb, its infrastructure is old.  The sewer line following the creek that runs along the north edge of the park is leaking, and the municipality must replace it.  Next spring, the municipality's contractor is going to excavate a massive trench alongside the creek and through a major portion of the park to install a new 5-foot concrete sewer pipe.  Any work that Kevin has accomplished to date there will be destroyed.  I'd find such a setback really disheartening, but Kevin sees the silver lining in these storm clouds because the construction will require streambank restoration and he thinks the park could actually end up better than it is now.

I'll withhold judgement until I get a chance to see the work.