Dick Cooper - December 2010

 

A Walk in the Park - And Then Some
by
Dick Cooper

An odd couple lives near the Bill Shook Memorial Bridge on the St. Michaels Nature Trail. A great blue heron and a mallard inhabit the marshy pond at the end of San Domingo Creek.
The stiff-legged heron stalks the edges looking for minnows and soft crabs while the duck swims in ever-tightening circles. When the heron decides the duck has entered his private space, he squawks loudly and launches an attack. The duck jumps into the air and flies to the other end of the pond. Then the duck gradually swims closer and closer to the heron and the two repeat the cycle.
They may have been performing their pas de deux in secret for years, but now their world is on the path of the dozens of people who use the 1.3-mile trail daily since it officially opened in the spring.
Walking along the Nature Trail, I can’t help but think that every once in a while, government and the private sector work together and get it right.
The eight-foot wide paved trail, once the bed of the railroad that ran from Claiborne to Easton a century ago, has a steady clientele of hikers, bikers, joggers and dog walkers. It links three town parks and offers pedestrians and cyclists a safe path away from busy Talbot Street.
For decades the rail bed was on the planning books as a bypass road around St. Michaels. Town residents opposed taking traffic away from the Talbot Street business district, but residents of the Bay Hundred and Tilghman Island favored an alternative route to ease traffic congestion, especially during the height of tourist season.
By the late 1990s, however, federal environmental laws governing wetlands had toughened and it was clear that the state would have a hard time getting the permits necessary to build the bypass. That’s when the town commissioners first considered the rails-to-trails idea.
The idea didn’t get much traction until the Rotary Club of St. Michaels made the trail its 75th Anniversary project. Even then, Rotarians say that it was a slow process. “It was in limbo for about three years,” says Carol Armstrong.
With the support of the state, Elm Street Development, Environmental Concern, Inc., the Rotary Club and private benefactors, most of the $1.3 million needed to build the trail was raised. But one of the issue stalling the completion was the cost of a bridge over San Domingo Creek. The bridge was needed to link the southern and northern sections of the trail.
In May of 2007, an automobile accident just outside of St. Michaels claimed the life of Wilson M. “Bill” Shook. Shook was a well-liked area sportsman. He and his brother, Langley Shook, now president of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, and their families built a weekend home on San Domingo Creek in 1987.
Bill Shook had been a senior executive with Clark Construction Group of Bethesda, Maryland, at the time of his death at age 55. Langley Shook recalls that a neighbor, David Jeffery, a Rotarian, told him the club was trying to raise funds for the bridge.
“He said it was the missing link,” Langley Shook says. “We raised the money in Bill’s memory.” He says that the “lion’s share” came from Bill’s boss and friend, A. James Clark, and his fellow workers at Clark Construction.
“There is no doubt that without their contributions the trail would not be completed now,” Armstrong says.
My wife, Pat, and I like to walk and we watched with anticipation as the Nature Trail went from planning to building to completion. We became regular users of the trail even before it was opened and have witnessed its evolution.
At first I thought calling it a “nature” trail was a bit of a stretch. The southern section along route 33 starts in an open field across from the St. Michaels Fire Department. It is followed by a wooded section that exposed the backs of businesses including several abandoned vehicles.
But over the last several months the plantings have grown in to hide most of the unsightly views and the wild grasses in the field are almost shoulder high. Grasshoppers bound through the air while squirrels and rabbits rustle through the underbrush. We have come upon deer and watched as osprey and eagles soar overhead. Recently, two very agitated woodpeckers chased each other in circles over San Domingo Creek. The deep greens of summer have mellowed into the soft browns of autumn.
The trail has several entry points. We walk from our home in Rio vista to the southern entrance across from the Fire Hall. A parking lot across from the Bay Hundred Swimming Pool affords another entrance. The trail follows the western edge of St. Michaels, passing the Environmental Concern Inc. greenhouses into San Domingo Park. There it jogs off over the bridge. The trail continues past the old power plant, along a horse farm and cemetery before ending at Bradley Park on Railroad Ave.
Along the way, illustrated signs explain the necessity of wetlands and how they affect the environment. Park benches have been added and landscaping has been greatly improved all along the trail. A post-and-rail fence lines a good portion of the trail.
St. Michaels Commission President Michael Brady says that besides being used by local residents, the trail is bringing in more visitors. “I think it is a great attraction and brings additional tourists and revenue to the town,” Brady says.
Thomas Campi, Jr., of Friends of the Nature Trail, said his organization is trying to raise money to enhance and expand the trail. He says he hopes that eventually the trail will connect St. Michaels to Easton. He also says that his group is currently looking for the funding to survey an extension of the trail from Bradley Park, north to the Perry Cabin ball fields. “This is a great victory,” he says of the Nature Trail’s completion. “But it is just the first mile.”

Dick Cooper, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and his wife, Pat, live and sail in St. Michaels, Md. He can be reached at dickcooper@coopermediaassociates.com.