17 years of getting back to nature

The Baltimore Sun

When Frank Marsden visited Eden Mill about 17 years ago, he had a glimmer of an idea.

He saw something more than a closed-down mill, built in 1805, that was filled with cobwebs and dust. He saw an opportunity to use the land to get people away from their televisions and back into nature.

"We have a wonderful environmental education center [the Harford Glen Environmental Education Center] that was established through the school system," said Marsden. "But we didn't have anything for the public. So I got this insane idea to come to a closed-down place and open it to the public."

The Eden Mill Nature Center has come a long way since. Over the past 17 years, more than 100 people have signed on to volunteer, dozens of programs have been started, the center has been renovated and the land has doubled.

And on Saturday, the efforts of the volunteers and staff will be celebrated at a rededication of the nature center, said Marsden.

"It's a pure joy opening up to people what's out here," said Marsden, who left his job as a business owner to volunteer at the center. "We've lost touch with our environment. We go from our air-conditioned cars to our air-conditioned homes. People need to touch, taste, feel and smell nature to fully appreciate it."

The rededication is free and open to the public. It will include guided hikes, where visitors will be educated on wildlife and plants in the area, mill tours, 25 exhibits of environmental organizations and activities for children.

Tours will also be given of the center's newly renovated classroom, which includes specimens of local wildlife, Marsden said.

A highlight of the event is a tour through the renovated nature center. With the help of grants and fundraisers, the building was insulated, heat and air conditioning were installed, the walls were covered to make them look more rustic, and mounted animals, including beaver, muskrat, mink, otter, heron, owl, fox and deer, are exhibited in the classroom.

Unlike many museums and nature centers, the children are allowed to touch, Marsden said.

"We're a very touch-and-feel nature center," he said.

To oversee the center, Marsden started the Eden Mill Nature Committee, which was made up entirely of volunteers, he said. Recently, the nature center was doubled in size, to a total of 120 acres.

"The land will be preserved through an Open Space grant," he said. Fifty acres will be used as a wildlife habitat, and "all of it should be protected from development."

At age 23, Aimee Harris is the first full-time paid naturalist at Eden Mill. She began working at the center at age 12. She cleared trails and helped with outdoor programs.

After graduation from high school, she attended Towson University, and graduated in 2007 with a degree in environmental science.

"I helped with the trails and canoe trips," said Harris. "I grew to love this place. When I graduated from Towson, this is where I wanted to be."

Harris oversees many of the programs offered at Eden Mill, which include preschool nature programs and home-school and adult programs.

More than 10,000 visitors a year use the center to learn about nature and attend instructional classes and camps offered throughout the year.

Unlike many nature centers that are geared only toward children, the center offers activities for 2-year-olds to senior citizens. The activities range from canoeing and kayaking to summer camps and family campfires.

"We keep all of our activities as inexpensive as possible," said Marsden, who lives in Pylesville near the center. "We don't charge more than $8 or $10 for any activities but summer camps."

One of the most popular activities is the two-hour guided twilight canoe trip, Harris said.

Offered from May to September on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, the trip costs $8. Other programs have waiting lists, such as Tiny Wonders, a program offered to preschoolers and taught by two former teachers.

Demand for the summer camps has also increased so much that the number of sessions doubled this year, Harris said.

"I think the big appeal is that we are so unique," she said. "There is something for everyone. There is space for big groups to come in, or for a family to come and do an activity. We also have a historic grist mill, which people come from all over the country to see."

On a recent morning, activities were going on all over the grounds. A group of preschoolers was preparing to go out in canoes with their parents. Jack Chester, known as "Captain Jack," helped them board the canoes. At age 67, he has been volunteering at the center for about nine years.

Once all the children were on board, he got into a kayak and trailed behind them as they were led by Marsden on the tour.

"I started volunteering here because I love everything about nature," said Chester, a Jarrettsville resident. "It gets me away from television and outside enjoying things like kayaking and canoeing."

On the other side of the dam from the canoe launch, North Harford Middle School students were participating in their annual Deer Creek Field Experience, during which the students work at six stations.

One group of students participated in the aquatic vertebrate stations. They waded into the creek with nets, caught fish that they placed in buckets, and then took them ashore to identify them.

Angela Gooden, who teaches seventh-grade science at North Harford Middle School, said students love the location. They plan their three-day excursion a year in advance, she said.

"We're kind of protected here," she said snapping an occasional picture of students as they lost their footing and splashed into the water. "This is the lab for what they have learned all year long. This location is very pristine, and we know the students will be safe."

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