A new trail beckons the visually impaired

Pool Wildlife Sanctuary now offers a roped trail with tactile exhibits, Braille texts.

Pool Wildlife Sanctuary now offers a roped trail with tactile exhibits, Braille texts

The last time I visited the Wildlands Conservancy's Pool Wildlife Sanctuary was to write about a naming contest for the new skunk. It was a fun story, if a bit trifling. The skunk, dubbed Smudge, would probably have been happy with any old name.

I was back there Tuesday, this time to write about something more weighty — the dedication of a new walking trail for the blind and visually impaired. It's on the northern part of the sanctuary, visible from Cedar Crest Boulevard at Riverbend Road.

The trail is a half-mile loop bordered by heavy yellow rope that walkers can hold as they travel the path. Along the way are a number of kiosks containing information on wildlife, written both in large print and Braille.

One kiosk, for example, has a cement center with imprints of rabbit, deer and skunk feet, with text describing the habits and characteristics of these animals.

There are boxes, too, containing samples of such things you might find on a walk in the woods: pine cones, milkweed pods, deer antlers.

The trail was a long time in the making — 30 years, if you consider that Kevin Cope, chief executive officer of the nonprofit Lehigh Valley Business Group, first considered building it after walking on one in western Pennsylvania back in early 1980s.

That experience "allowed me to open up my senses and really appreciate my sight," Cope said Tuesday, addressing a small gathering at the trail — volunteers and representatives of the conservancy and the Center for Vision Loss in Allentown. "It's been my dream and my passion to do something similar."

So he reached out to the Wildlands Conservancy, which was eager to do something with the relatively neglected northern part of the sanctuary, and found an eager volunteer in Devin Garcia of Nazareth, the 18-year-old son of a Lehigh Valley Business Group member. Garcia had been a Boy Scout since fourth grade and was looking for a project to earn his Eagle Scout badge.

With the help of friends and other volunteers, Garcia, a member of Troop 43 in Bath, spent four months planning, then three weekends sinking poles, running ropes and erecting kiosks.

"I definitely learned a lot from this," Garcia said, adding that he expects others to come along and enhance the trail in years to come. "This is just the basis of what it will be," he said.

Rita Lang, manager of innovative programming for the Vision Center, said a group of clients will be walking the trail next week. She said it's a unique feature in the Lehigh Valley and compared it to the Da Vinci Science Center, with its Braille-text exhibits, as an example of an attraction accessible to the visually impaired.

Carl Martin, the Wildlands' director of property stewardship, painted a lovely picture of the trail's future: surrounded by vividly colored and scented flowers that would serve as attractions by themselves but also draw different species of birds to brighten the day with song.

"We can manipulate the vegetation here to enhance other sensory opportunities," Martin said, pointing out how quaking aspens, for example, make a sound like rainfall when they shake in the wind. "It will be a changing palette for the senses."

This manipulation poses a challenge. Martin told me how the grass growing wildly under one of the trees was called Japanese stilt grass. It arrived in this area a hundred or more years ago as packing material, took root and has thrived because birds, bugs and deer have no taste for it.

So it has pushed out native plant species and thrown nature out of balance. It's an old story that in other versions has involved insects — the emerald ash borer and the stink bug, for example — and fish, like the spooky, air-breathing snakehead known as Frankenfish.

"The grocery store is burning down," said Martin, meaning the plants that were part of native animal diets are dwindling under the encroachment of the Japanese grass and other foreign flora.

Martin said he hopes an arresting mix of native trees and bushes will catch the attention of motorists on Cedar Crest Boulevard, who might be inspired not only to visit the conservancy but to plant similar vegetation at home, helping to restore the natural equilibrium.

To reach the walking trail, turn onto Farr Road from Cedar Crest Boulevard, a little south of Riverbend Road.

daniel.sheehan@mcall.com

610-820-6598

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