Settlers Cabin Park trail offers view of the world's woodlands

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Frank Gricus, a volunteer guide for the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden, said he likes being out in the field giving tours more than spending time in the office stuffing envelopes.

After spending some time with Mr. Gricus on one of the preview tours showcasing the Woodlands of the World portion of the botanic garden's 452-acre-site at Settlers Cabin Park, it's easy to see why.

The 40-acre tract features five woodland habitats ranging from an Appalachian plateau woodland to a cove forest, and not only did the 20 people who turned out for a free tour Oct. 4 have the opportunity to soak in some beautiful woodland scenery, they also learned a lot about the site's history and the work the botanic garden is doing to restore the land.

Mr. Gricus pointed out the botanic garden has planted more than 2,000 native trees and shrubs while removing invasive species, but the botanic garden has also worked to improve the water quality in steams and ponds on the site by cleaning up acid mine drainage from abandoned coal mines.

"We are doing more than planting new trees and shrubs," Mr. Gricus said. "We are healing the land by remediating and getting rid of acid mine drainage from the coal mines that goes into the streams."

Mr. Gricus explained that the water on the woodlands site was so loaded with acid mine discharges it couldn't be used for irrigation.

The botanic garden responded by developing a plan to remove the remaining coal in the mines.

That helped clean the water for irrigation and reduced pollution entering Robinson Run, a tributary of Chartiers Creek. The botanic garden has built three ponds capable of holding 2 million gallons of water.

"As we saw with the dry summer we had this year, a source of water is very important for the new trees," Mr. Gricus said.

Getting the water to the trees scattered throughout the woodlands, though presented a challenge.

"We used a dam and weir system. Solar cells power a pump that feeds water uphill to the saplings," he said.

The water is then poured into "ooze bags," which are collapsible plastic containers, placed around the trees that allow the water to ooze out slowly helping the trees absorb the water more efficiently.

The tour covers a mile walk in about an hour, so there is plenty of time to absorb the natural beauty of the many dogwood, maple, black cherry and oak trees growing on the site.

Mr. Gricus pointed out the trail is made from crushed red Pennsylvania shale, and it was chosen because the rock with its neutral pH would not upset the soil's chemical composition.

While adults may enjoy learning about the mechanics of creating a native woodland setting, there are also some features of the tour that appeal to children.

Kitty Vagley, director of development for the botanic garden, said she is most excited about the tours' "family moments." They are hands-on play and discovery activities for children.

There is a cob dragon along the trail, made of mud, clay, sand and straw, that is dried and sealed with a rock base, and a bird's nest large enough for children to sit in made of twigs and branches cleared from along the trails. Also, in the works is a hobbit hut for story-telling in the English forest section dominated by white oak and beech trees.

The tour ends with a view of the original settlers' cabin in the park, a log structure built by the brothers Gabriel and Isaac Walker in 1762.

"They were hauled to Philadelphia in chains during the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794, but later pardoned," Mr. Gricus said.

The botanic garden is working to restore the original apple orchard near the cabin with the types of apple trees grown by the Walker brothers, including one from Monticello, the estate of Thomas Jefferson in Virginia.

"We want the site to be a self-sustaining example of pioneer life," Mr. Gricus said.

Remaining tours are Oct. 23, 27 and 31 and Nov. 3, 8, 17 and 23, as well as Dec. 1 and 15. For times and registration:

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Bob Podurgiel, freelance writer:


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