Thursday, December 13, 2007

#68 Old Mill Trail below Pantops is for Everyone

December 13, 2007

The Rivanna at Pantops shows modest buffer in the summertime. Old Mill Trail starts at the bridge on the county side. Photo credit: Hank Hellman

It is an early December afternoon, unseasonably warm. The slant of sun at two o’clock conveys the certain message that within a couple of hours, the sun will fall off the edge of the earth, leaving us in the cold and darkness of another winter night. I am on the County side of the river, below Pantops, on the Old Mill Trail, named with a nod to the grain mills that once lined this stretch of the Rivanna in the 17 and early 1800’s. When completed, it will terminate at Milton, but here it is a wide “Class A” trail, suitable for wheelchairs, bikes, and older folks who need a firm and clear footing.

The path has been bush-hogged clear of excess brush and bramble, and a thin layer of rock-duct paving shows boot prints and various scuff marks left behind by human and non-human travelers along the river corridor. Here and there, semi-translucent tree tubes, four feet high and staked in place, reveal where young cedars and oak trees have been planted to help restore what was removed to make way for the trail.

This swath of green is what is called a “riparian buffer” … “riparian” for river; buffer for the fact that it is a protective transition zone between civilization and the river in its normal flow within its banks. The river’s buffer is often the same as its floodplain, as it ishere, a broad expanse of sand deposited in the slow curve of the river. Federal and state regulations and county code all protect this buffer and ensure that there is little or no disturbance in what is called the floodplain overlay district.

But recreational uses are allowed, and there’s no keeping out the animals. Every hundred yards or so, placed neatly at the edge of the path, is a desiccated clump of scat, full of berries, left behind by fox or raccoon.

And everywhere, the sign of beaver … here, a series of tree stumps scraped to points like pencils, ragged with teeth marks and accompanied by piles of fresh wood chips on the ground. There are some random scrapes in the rock dust, where a beaver has pulled the trunk across the walking path towards the river making its own trail through bramble and woods and eventually to a steep earthen slide down to the water. One unlucky animal was forced to leave its quarry behind, the trunk left dangling a foot off the ground gripped by thorny greenbrier and bittersweet.

Apartment complexes have sprouted up all along the hillside overlooking the river in this part of the county, but today there is no one on the trail, so as I cross the simple bridges that ford the creeks flowing into the Rivanna along this stretch, I am left to a quiet that is punctuated only now and again by the sounds of hikers on the other side of the river at Riverview Park and the faint gush of the river itself tumbling on down towards the Bay.

Well before I reach the remains of the Woolen Mills dam, I turn back, watching for more signs. Bicycle tracks weaving figure eights in the soft gravel. A series long lines and crooked hieroglyphics dug into the rock dust have me mystified until I come upon a perfect circle, made by a kid – or young at heart – with a stick and the desire to leave a mark. Against a tree, there’s a stack of trash bags bulging with soda cans, fast food wrappers, plastic toys, leftover from a river clean-up, I suppose.

Though the urban trail system along the river is relatively tame, it still touches some deep and primal places within, where I can exercise my tracking sense, however dim and unskilled it may be, and where I can watch each season fold ever so gracefully into the next.


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