Kaleidoscope: Wilderness Center fine spot for nature lovers

by KEN LAHMERS | EDITOR Published:

It's not hard to find places to encounter nature in Ohio, as there are dozens -- perhaps hundreds -- of public parks, preserves and wildlife areas.

Aurora has Sunny Lake Park, the Moebius Nature Center, Tinkers Creek State Park and a handful of Greater Cleveland Audubon Society sanctuaries.

There are several trails in the area which I've written about.

For local residents who would like to take a day trip just south of here to enjoy nature, may I suggest southwest Stark County's the Wilderness Center.

Many times when I was younger -- and still today -- I've traveled Route 250 between Strasburg in Tuscarawas County and Wooster in Wayne County. That route passes right by the rural road that leads to the center.

However, I never had taken the time to visit the 619-acre site until the second weekend in November.

The road off Route 250 is about 1 1/2 miles northwest of the village of Wilmot (population about 335), which is where the famous Amish-style eatery the Amish Door is located.

THE CENTER'S HISTORY

The Wilderness Center got its start in the mid-1960s, when the Canton Audubon Society had a public meeting to discuss the idea of establishing a community nature center.

The Charlie Sigrist farm was picked as the site of the nature center after the Audubon Society explored several potential locations.

The land featured a section of trees -- some nearly 300 years old -- which had never been cut. The land was easily accessible from Canton, Massillon, Wooster, Millersburg and New Philadelphia-Dover.

Membership fees and contributions from many charitable foundations have enabled the center to continue, and it will mark its first half-century soon.

The site is comprised of forest, meadows, marshes and a restored prairie, a large lake and smaller pond, an interpretative building housing nature exhibits, meeting rooms and classroom space, trails and picnic shelters.

The interpretative building was erected in 1974. It has enabled educational nature-related activities to grow at a rapid pace.

Connecting People and Nature raised more than $5.25 million in 1998 to renovate and expand the building, add astronomy education and maintenance buildings and make other site improvements.

Programming has been expanded into schools, the center has fostered the creation of many specialty clubs and it continues to be privately supported by contributions from members, fundraising events and very successful endowment campaigns.

The main site is not all that the Wilderness Center owns. It has preserved 2,922 acres in Stark, Wayne, Tuscarawas, Holmes and Carroll counties through conservation easements, including a 193-acre parcel south of Zoar called Zoar Woods, which is on partially reclaimed stripmine land.

THE CENTER EXPERIENCE

There are six trails on the main property, and on the 60-degree mid-November day that I visited, I chose to walk the 1 1/4-mile Pond Trail, which surrounds Wilderness Lake.

Part of the trail snakes through woodlands. Looking down on the 7 1/2-acre lake from a hill in the woods is a three-level wooden tower. It was easy to see the lake when the leaves were off the trees, but in summer it might be a little hard to see it.

On the opposite side of the lake is an observation deck extending out over the water, from where swimming Canada geese and ducks can be viewed.

The looping trail also takes hikers past a smaller pond. Near the trailhead is a small amphitheater and shelter, from which the center was conducting a birdseed sale on the day I was there, plus there's a sundial and rock walk.

Fox Creek runs through the Wilderness Center land, and two other trails wind along and over it, through a wooded wetlands and old apple orchard and past some of the area's oldest trees.

Sugar Creek Trail runs along another creek, while the Belden and Blake Wilderness Walk passes through beech and mixed forests, and affords great views of spring wildflowers.

The interpretative building has a gift shop featuring books about nature and other nature-related items, plus some displays focusing on Ohio's geology and wildlife. Children enjoy watching Boris the corn snake in a glass cage.

In the back corner of the building is an observation area from where visitors can sit by large glass windows and see birds flock to a feeder. Occasionally, wildlife such as groundhogs and raccoons amble up to eat birdseed which has dropped onto the ground from the feeder.

Some of the special programs the center offers focus on backyard bird feeding, making wreaths, the night sky and seeds, plus there are guided hikes led by naturalists, full-moon walks, star watches, storytimes and Geology Day.

SOLAR ARRAY AT CENTER

Another fascinating part of the center grounds is the Arnold Fitz Solar Array, a solar photovoltaic (electrical) system installed through a grant from the Daniel M. And Maureen O. Gunn Foundation.

It is dedicated to one of the center's founders -- retired Malone College professor of biology Arnold Fitz -- who has been a proponent of sustainable energy for many years.

Ohio-based Dovetail Solar and Wind completed the solar array's installation earlier this year. The two huge sections of solar panels are situated at the entrance to the Wilderness Center, and during hot weather, they provide shade for visitors' vehicles.

The system is expected to produce about 84,000 kilowatt hours of electricity each year, which would be 80 percent of the energy needed to run the interpretative building.

It is estimated that over the next 25 years, the array will keep 1,574 tons of carbon dioxide out of the air, the equivalent of 27 acres of trees planted or 5.1 million miles not driven by gas-powered vehicles.

In the future, TWC will create a display and other teaching materials to explain how solar power works and its benefits.

ABOUT ZOAR WOODS

Once part of the Zoar Separatists colony, Zoar Woods features a 2-mile trail on which visitors can see mature forests, evergreens plantations, pond and meadow, reclaimed and unreclaimed stripmine land and a high wall.

Zoar Woods was donated to the Wilderness Center in 1973. I have never walked its trail, but would like to some day.

CENTER'S CONCERT SERIES

The center also has a concert series to help raise some funds for operations.

A concert was scheduled in the evening on the day I was there, and I was surprised to discover it featured the Hastily Assembled Grassroots Band.

When I was a teenager, the vocalist and acoustic guitar player in the bluegrass/folk band -- Jeanne Wieland -- moved to my neighborhood with her then-husband, Fritz.

Jeanne and Fritz were in their early 20s, and their place became a hangout spot for the neighborhood kids. We loved watching Fritz do wheelies on his 1950s-vintage Triumph 650 motorcycle, and spending time with the cool couple.

It was 20 years since I saw Jeanne, and it was the first time I've listened to the band, which formerly was called the Hastily Assembled Bluegrass Band.

In addition to Jeanne, the band's musicians play he bass fiddle, banjo, dobro and mandolin.

On this night, the audience heard Jeanne's 13-year-old granddaughter sing and play the guitar for the first time with the band. And filling in on mandolin was Larry Mader, who once played with Wild Cherry, which was famous for "Play That Funky Music" in 1976.

The tune was No. 1 on the Billboard pop chart for three weeks, and the band's debut album went platinum. Mader hails from East Springfield.

Jeanne's band doesn't play many public concerts, but they do play annually at the Ohio RV Supershow, which is scheduled for Jan. 9-13 in 2013.

I also got to see Jeanne's sister, Mary Ann, whom I graduated from high school with, and their mom. All in all, it was a great day and evening.

Email: klahmers@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9400 ext. 4189

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