February 25, 2010

Guided Nature Tour at Belmont


Guided Nature Tour at Belmont
Date published: 2/25/2010


The antidote for this winter's cabin fever lies close within reach: The folks at Belmont will host this month's guided nature tour of the estate's woods and fields.

"The mile-and-a-half hike makes a circuit through a variety of terrain, including a meadow, woodlands and a rock scramble when the river isn't too high--and there are little bridges, creeks and wetlands," said Belmont grounds preservation supervisor Beate Jensen, who initiated and coordinated the project of restoring the trail.

"It's a great way for parents to introduce their children to hiking--it's not too long of a trail and it is close to home."

Jensen was first inspired with the idea for a nature trail after seeing a letter that Corinne Melchers had written in 1943, when she was making plans to leave the estate that she and her husband, Gari, had enjoyed so much as a legacy to the community.

"She had purchased land next to Belmont, and she talked about how she would like to see a path through the woods," Jensen explained. "She thought the public would derive great pleasure in having Belmont as a park."

Bringing that vision to fruition entailed the investment of much time, talent and effort. Over time, invasive species had overtaken the property, and the "winding path in the grove" that Mrs. Melchers had laid out in 1931 was virtually obliterated by trees, vines and shrubs.

For the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, and the local chapter of the Virginia Master Naturalists who took on the task, restoration was a labor of love.

The trail's renovation began in 2000 and involved erosion control, bridge repair, extending the existing trail to a natural spring, and placing ID markers on a variety of trees.

Bulbs and mountain laurel, which Melchers wrote she had planted in the grove, were replanted on the grounds, and the fields were planted with warm-season native grasses and wildflowers.

The restored trail today winds from the garden, through the grasses and the woodlands, down to the Rappahannock River below. Along the way, hikers will see reminders of the history of the grounds, including the pre-Civil War burial plot of a young mother and her child who died in infancy, an old ice pond dam, and a pumphouse that the family put in to bring water from a stream to their house in the 1920s.

"My favorite part of the walk is down by the river," said Elaine Hild, a Virginia master naturalist who serves as a guide for the hike. "When a hiking group comes close to the river, we are silent for a moment and just listen to the roar of the water.

"The river was a crossroads for Native American tribes who would come together to meet here," added Hild. "And when Joseph Ficklen lived at Belmont in the 1820s, he was able to walk down from his property to the river and take a ship to England!"

In the snow of the winter months, hikers may spot the tracks of deer, groundhogs and raccoons, and they will see a variety of animal habitats, such as the entrance hole to a groundhog burrow.
"The woodland walk is a great family activity," said Hild. "You get physical exercise and you're out in the clean fresh air."

And, adds Jansen, it's family-friendly and year-round interesting.

"Families can come every month. Nature is always changing, so there is always something new to see and learn.

"Even in the dead of winter, snowdrops and daffodils are poking through the snow," Jansen noted.

"Each person has their own unique experience when they go through the woods. Everybody sees something or feels it in their own individual way--whether it be the cold, or the sun, or the fragrance, or the wind.

"And I encourage families to come back on their own after these guided tours and experience the trail at different times throughout the year."

Collette Caprara is a local artist and freelance writer.

What: Guided Woodland Nature Hike Where: Gari Melchers Home and Studio at Belmont, 224 Washington St., Fredericksburg When: Sunday, Feb. 28, 2 p.m. (and the last Sunday of every month, also at 2 p.m.) Cost: Free Info: 540/654-1851; garimelchers.org

(Caprara, Collette. "Guided Woodland Hike At Belmont Offers a Free Chance to Enjoy Nature --and History." The Freelance Star 25 February 2010)

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