On the map, the trail between Ohio’s Shawnee State Forest and The Nature Conservancy’s Edge of Appalachia Preserve is a winding dervish of a footpath, rising over wooded ridges and dropping into narrow gorges.
The thing is, right now a map is the only place the trail exists.
Over the next few years the Buckeye Trail Association will route 14 miles of long-distance trail over land purchased by the Conservancy for its “Sunshine Corridor” project.
We couldn’t wait to see it.
Staff from the Conservancy and the Buckeye Trail Association met on a weekend in May for a cross-country bushwhack on Conservancy-owned land to ground-truth the proposed trail. Josh Knights, executive director of the Conservancy’s Ohio program, gives us a peek at his field notes:
It doesn’t take long for the rest of us to recognize that we may have trouble keeping pace with Bill Stanley, the Conservancy’s director of conservation. He has the GPS with the map programmed into it, and he moves through the forest as if reared by a pack of coyotes, holding the GPS out in front like some high-tech divining rod. He frequently disappears from sight over the next ridge, letting the rest of us catch up as we can.
We stop early for lunch the first day. Andrew Bashaw, executive director of the Buckeye Trail Association, talks about trail design. The Association builds and maintains the 1,444-mile Buckeye Trail and the Ohio portion of the North Country National Scenic Trail. The two long-distance foot trails run together along rural roads in this part of the state, but we’ve agreed to work together to route the trails through our land.
“You have to let the trail take the people where they want to go,” Andrew tells us.
That sounds reasonable, but where do we want to go? That day, it seems we want to visit an old tobacco barn, find a box turtle muddling next to a stream, and take a detour to a rocky outcropping we dub “Apothecary Rock” for the abundance of medicinal plants it supports. We make camp for the night by a gurgling spring.
The ruins of an old sawmill is the first thing to greet us as we begin our second day. Great piles of scrap wood slabs are about all that is left.
In a nearby clearing, a round enclosure with a trap door for an entrance tells us that our conservation staff is trying to determine the extent of wild boar in the area. These huge pigs use their tusks to root about for food on the forest floor and can do tremendous damage to native plants.
Although the trail has been roughly sketched out on a topo map, Andrew makes notes along the way about how to change it. Unexpected obstacles and features that would interest a hiker lead Andrew to stop and scribble on his map. We all stop with him except for Bill, who has to be tracked down when we’re all ready to go.
A difficult climb is rewarded with a beautiful view from a ridgetop, but the sky is becoming increasing overcast. Soon it is raining. The rain seems to bring out the smells of the forest, and when our path takes us through a thicket of spicebush, we’re all pleasantly surprised by the fragrance.
On the slippery forest floor we pay more attention to our steps and are rewarded with the discovery of an ovenbird nest, an intercontinental migrant that nests in these forests we are trying to save. The ovenbird gets its name because it's nest looks like an adobe oven with a side entrance.
The rain visits us again during the night, lulling us to sleep in our tents.
After breakfast, we venture off the map trail to take a “short cut” down a steep slope to a creek. We are rewarded with multiple encounters with showy yellow ladyslipper orchids, which seem to appreciate this stream.
We encounter evidence of trespass on the preserve by ATVs. The Nature Conservancy prohibits ATV use on its nature preserves due to the damage they cause, especially at stream crossings. The new Buckeye Trail will incorporate many techniques learned from experience to thwart ATV access to these conserved lands and waters.
We stop to eat our lunch in a small barrens created by a thin layer of soil coating a rocky outcrop. Indian paintbrush plants thrive here and their vibrant colors look like miniature firework bursts. We ford a shallow stream that is guarded by a pink ladyslipper orchid, a lone sentry among the reindeer lichen.
I lag behind a little, hoping to delay the inevitable end of my time in the woods. A scarlet tanager pops into view, its red body almost startling. As we walk down the last hillside to our ride home, I am reassured by the knowledge that The Nature Conservancy’s work to protect this special place means it will be here waiting for my next visit.