By Bob Downing, Akron Beacon Journal (MCT)
11:50 AM EST, February 11, 2013
WAKEMAN, Ohio - The late Gussie Olsen would be proud.
Her 83-acre gift to the state of Ohio has grown into a 132-acre state nature preserve that features multi-hued bluffs along the picturesque Vermilion River in north-central Ohio.
Welcome to the Augusta-Anne Olsen State Nature Preserve, one of the best wildflower spots in northern Ohio.
The preserve north of Wakeman in northeastern Huron County features three miles of trails and almost a mile of the Vermilion River, which makes a great bend to the northwest on the preserve.
The riffle-and-pool Vermilion River is only about 35 miles in length and empties into Lake Erie. It drops about 500 feet in that distance and cuts through the Berea Escarpment. It is a pretty stream with bluffs of sandstone and shale that reach 100 to 200 feet in height.
The lower two-thirds of its cliffs are made up of thin layers of dark, crumbly Cleveland shale. There is also a layer of fine sandstone. The upper third is a soft, grayish-red Bedford shale that gave the river its name: After heavy rain, the hue would wash out and stain the cliffs reddish-orange, vermilion in French.
At river level, you can find the soft, bluish Chagrin shale that is 360 million years old, the oldest exposed rock in Northeast Ohio.
In the winter, water seeping from the cliffs creates giant ice displays, especially in shady spots.
Paddlers enjoy the Vermilion in the spring and after heavy rains. It passes small farms and second-growth woodlots.
The section north of Wakeman may be the prettiest and most rugged section along the Vermilion, with a wider floodplain. That's where you will find the Olsen preserve, off West River Road in Wakeman Township.
In the early 1970s, William and Augusta-Anne Olsen purchased a 140-acre farm north of Wakeman on the west bank of the Vermilion River.
Augusta-Anne Olsen had grown up in Maryland and her old family farm had been lost to a naval installation. She was especially drawn to the site by the dense patches of club moss or crowsfoot that reminded her of her childhood.
In 1985, she donated 83 acres to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to become the Vermilion River Preserve. In 1997, the state purchased an additional 47 acres of the farm. In 2000, it became the Augusta-Anne Olsen State Nature Preserve.
It features ridge tops with oaks and maples that rise above a mixed floodplain forest along the river. It offers views high above the river on a ridge of serviceberry and witch hazel.
Because of the bend in the river, the preserve is home to different plant communities because of the varying exposures. It offers a great deal of biodiversity in a small area.
It is also known for excellent birding, especially in the spring. Pileated woodpeckers, scarlet tanagers and wood warblers may be spotted. Bald eagles are often sighted along the river.
The trails have practical names - River Trail, Sassafras Trail, Old Field Trail, Spring Trail - and are short. The River Loop Trail is 1.5 miles, the Sassafras Trail a half-mile.
You can access the preserve via the Old Field Trail. It skirts a small pond and then cuts through an old farm field where plant succession is taking place. A few bird boxes have been installed in the rolling field.
To the left are deep woods of beech and mixed hardwoods that gently slope to the Vermilion River. That's where you will find the Spring Trail. It connects to the River Trail, which connects to the Sassafras Trail.
The Spring Trail makes a big loop through the maples and oaks that grow in the floodplain.
The damp woods are at their colorful best for wildflowers in April and May. Wildflowers include twinleaf, bluebells, sessile trillium, large-flowered trillium, drooping trillium, ginger, bloodroot, marsh marigold, hepatica, wild hyacinth, golden saxifrage, dwarf ginseng and showy orchis.
The woods are also home to vernal pools that house numerous amphibians. There are no rare plants or animals found in the preserve, ODNR says.
The Sassafras Trail features one of the largest sassafras trees in the state of Ohio, 4 feet in diameter. Sassafras is a member of the laurel family and was once used as the flavoring in root beer.
The preserve has few amenities, no restrooms or picnic areas. There is an information kiosk near the parking lot, and small bridges and wooden boardwalks in swampy areas.
For more information, contact the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, 614-265-6561, http://www.ohiodnr.com.
You can also access the Vermilion River and its cliffs at the Vermilion River Reservation, a 1,301-acre tract in western Lorain County, north of the state preserve.
It is at 51211 North Ridge Road in Brownhelm Township, a great place for a picnic or a short hike. It is owned and operated by the Lorain County Park District and includes the Mill Hollow and Bacon Woods parks on opposite sides of the river.
Settler Benjamin Bacon arrived from New England in 1817. The small community was initially called Brownhelm Mills; later it became Mill Hollow. The mill and town thrived until about 1900, although Mill Hollow peaked in the 1860s.
An 1845 Greek Revival house built by Bacon is a museum in the park. It is on the National Register of Historic Places. Call 440-967-7310 for hours and tour information.
You can find the sites of old mills and even the remnants of a millrace, or ditch, that was built in 1825 to divert water from the river to power the sawmill and gristmill.
For more information, contact the Lorain County Park District at 440-458-5121 or 800-526-7275, http://www.metroparks.cc. Call the park at 440-967-7310.
Another nearby outdoor option is Findley State Park in southern Lorain County. The 931-acre park off state Route 58 features a charming woodland, 14.9 miles of hiking trails and nine miles of single-track mountain bike trails that circle the lake.
The park also features a 1.2-mile nature trail with 15 self-guiding stops, an 18-hole disc golf course, a geocaching course and eight picnic areas.
The campground with 231 sites and three cabins lies on the southeast edge of 93-acre Findley Lake. There is a 435-foot grassy beach and marina concession on the lake's north side. Canoes and rowboats are available. Electric motors are permitted.
The land south of Oberlin was part of a rich farm area known as Cheesedom. Lorain County once produced 1 pound of cheese for every man, woman and child in Ohio.
The area was farmland until it was donated to the state in 1936-1937 by Guy B. Findley, a Lorain County judge. He had begun purchasing local farms outside Wellington starting in the 1920s to return them to woodlands.
He donated the land to the state of Ohio to be maintained as a state forest after the Civilian Conservation Corps planted an estimated half million pines and hardwoods. Findley helped plant the trees himself.
He struck up a friendship with author and noted conservationist Louis Bromfield, who had recently returned to Ohio, and whose Richland County farm later became Malabar Farm State Park.
In 1950, Findley's land was transferred to the newly formed Division of Parks.
The park also features a habitat for a rare butterfly, the Duke's skipper. It is a small, brown butterfly with yellow spots. It favors shaded wetland areas.
Wellington is also home to painter Archibald M. Willard, who painted the Spirit of '76. About 75 percent of the town is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
For information, contact Findley Lake State Park, 440-647-5749, http://www.ohiodnr.com.
Bob Downing: firstname.lastname@example.org