Headed for a gap in the wall of pine and birch trees ahead, children sloshed through a flooded field covered with patches of tiny white bluets.
“When the sun hits them, they turn kind of purple,” Savannah Boislard, a third-grader from Brownville Junction, said of the dainty flowers.
With a Hello Kitty umbrella and striped rain hat, Savannah was ready to spend the day outdoors with the rest of Brownville Elementary School’s student body. The 111 children — many wearing makeshift trash bag rain gear — endured the rainy weather last week to celebrate the school’s first Nature Trail Celebration Day and the official opening of the school’s refurbished nature trail.
“Education is not confined to a school building,” said sixth-grade teacher Judy Thompson, a leader in the recent efforts to revive the trail. “We want to extend the children’s appreciation of nature to the land around them.
The Brownville Elementary School Nature Trail has been a project since the route first was established and documented by forester Sue Stetson in 1987. At the time, Stetson’s daughter Jenny was entering kindergarten. After the trail was blazed, it slowly fell into neglect until Thompson and third-grade teacher Debbie Page began scheming to revamp the trail in 2005.
Over the years, numerous community members have volunteered their time to bring this nature trail to fruition for the children of Brownville and the community.
“We live out here in the middle of Maine and unfortunately, there’s nothing currently in our [Maine] Learning Results and our standards that address nature,” said Page. “There are basic things and science, but as far as learning about nature, there’s nothing that tells teachers that they have to cover it. So we had a long talk about that a few years ago and thought, ‘Geez, the children are growing up without the background and understanding about nature, and they’re the citizens of the future who are going to be making decisions about the environment. We thought there’s no better place to start than elementary school.”
The trail, about four-tenths of a mile long, is open to the public year round. Signs along the trail help visitors interpret the wildlife and anticipate what animals and plants they might observe in those areas. The completion of the signs this spring marked the end of the trail’s renovation and allowed Thompson to finally plan the nature day she had envisioned all along.
For the Nature Trail Celebration Day, students divided into groups and spent time at each of the stations. At one stop, they wandered into the woods to build fairy houses out of fallen birch bark and sticks. While at another, Casey Mealey, Appalachian Mountain Club senior naturalist, talked to the children about human impact on natural habitats, pointing out barbed wire embedded in a tree beside the trail — evidence that livestock used to graze in that spot.
“I liked the vernal pool,” said second-grader Corbin Cyr, who caught a diving beetle with a dip net during his group’s turn at the vernal pool station.
“The crown jewel [of the trail] would be the vernal pool because it’s a rather large vernal pool and it has all the aspects of it — the salamanders, the wood frogs and the ferry shrimp,” said Shannon LeRoy, Appalachian Mountain Club programs and office manager.
LeRoy has been involved with renovation of the trail with Thompson and Page from the beginning, and it was she who initially spotted the vernal pool and explained the significance of the habitat to the teachers involved in rebuilding the trial.
“They got a real education, the teachers themselves, on the vernal pool,” LeRoy said. “That’s what it’s all about. The trail has not only connected the kids to nature, it has also connected the teachers.”
During the celebration, LeRoy talked about the importance of snag trees and ended her lesson teaching the children how to hoot like various Maine owls. Other stations were manned by Forest Ranger Gary Cook, who talked about “leave no trace” practices, and Game Warden Dan Carroll, who showed children how to identify Maine animal tracks.
“[I learned] that you can measure a whole tree with just one straight stick,” said sixth-grader Jericho Prado, referring to the tree measuring station led by Stetson.
To fund the project, Thompson and Page, with the help of LeRoy, wrote grant proposals.
A grant from Sandy and Dave Perloff paid for science kits and the sign at the trailhead painted by Suzette East of Brownville. A wetlands grant from the Department of Environmental Protection funded the sign at the vernal pool as well as its designation as a significant vernal pool. And a grant from the Plum Creek Foundation allowed organizers to enhance the trail with nine more signs and to purchase three iPads for students to use on the trail.
In addition, the Brownville Parent Teacher Organization supported construction of the trail. Many volunteers donated their time and resources for the trail, including parents Tracy and Fred Hartmann, who worked to clear out the trail along with many students.
Now that the nature trail is complete, Thompson and Page already are discussing how they might make it better. Future improvements may include a bird-watching wall, and while there isn’t much more public land to expand the trail outward, the trail’s length could be extended with connecting side trails.
“Before we started building our trail, we visited a beautiful nature trail down in China and took pictures and notes. Theirs is two or three times the size of ours, but it’s just weaving through the woods. We’re thinking of doing that,” said Page, referring to the China School’s Forest.
But more importantly, organizers aim for Nature Trail Celebration Day to become an annual outdoor event for students at Brownville Elementary School.
“It’s just a matter of getting people interested,” Thompson said. “As far as teachers go, we look for things that help tie the trail to the curriculum. That’s the main thing for teachers, and having them be able to find the time to take the kids out.”
By the end of the day, students were soaking wet. The rain hadn’t let up once. But as the children walked back across the soggy field, Savannah talked animatedly about her fairy house while fifth-grader Andy Gallant rehashed what he had learned about nurse logs. And by the time they had made it back to the gym, the sun had broken through the gray clouds to shed a little light on the purplish petals of the tiny wildflowers.
To view a video on the Nature Trail Celebration Day, visit actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com/2012/05/16/one-minute-hikes/1-minute-hike-brownville-elementary-school-nature-trail/.