Working on the wetlands: Junior class project devoted to preserving Knobstone Hiking Trail


Last October, a request for help was all it took for a regional hiking association to develop a relationship with students at one of the smallest schools in the state.

That and the possibility of putting their community on the map and spending time outside instead of in a classroom have helped foster an even deeper relationship that many at Medora Community Schools hope to continue.

The Knobstone Hiking Trail Association is a nonprofit organization whose members are dedicated to the completion, preservation and promotion of the Knobstone Hiking Trail, which begins in Clark County and heads northwest toward Martinsville. The association formed in 2013 to be a steward of the trail, which is not fully complete.

The Medora school is only five miles away from the trail, where it runs through the western part of Jackson County.

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When Suzanne Mittenthal, a board member of the association, approached Medora social studies and history teacher Pat Bahan last year to round up a group of students to assist with a trail work day, he enthusiastically accepted, and the task turned into a senior class project.

The three tasks of the class were to build a 16-foot footbridge at the edge of Sparksville, clear a quarter-mile of trail and erect a commemorative bench.

The association only applied for the wetland trail boardwalk followup project money last fall after learning the school’s junior class wanted its own project at the park, Mittenthal said.

“When working with the seniors, I had seen that the boardwalk at the swampy edge of the beautiful wetland pond had rotted away,” she said. “Without it, the valuable wetlands trail loop was unusable for most of the year.”

Mittenthal then consulted the Community Foundation of Jackson County, the funding source of the seniors’ fall project but thought her case was hopeless because it was too late for the usual application deadlines.

The original grant last fall of about $2,200 for the footbridge and Knobstone Hiking Trail improvement was obtained from the foundation with the help of a local board made up of residents from Carr and Owen townships, funded with donations from Rumpke Consolidated Services, which operates the Medora Landfill.

“It’s our way of giving back to the community that supports us,” Medora Landfill manager Ralph Collins said.

Donations to the fund are based on the tonnage of trash processed at the landfill. Rumpke also makes donations to support the Owen-Carr Township Community Endowment at the foundation, which also supports needs in the two townships.

The endowment can accept gifts of cash, stock, real estate and other real property from donors other than Rumpke, said Dan Davis, president and CEO of the foundation.

“I’m very grateful to the foundation, which advised me of a special president’s fund that could be approached regarding an extension of an existing project,” Mittenthal said. “As a Sparksville Park trail improvement project, it was appropriate for me to apply.”

The foundation awarded the association $461 for the lumber and fittings needed to replace the boardwalk. A better quality of treated timber with a wider width was purchased this time for the replacement than had been used 10 years earlier, Mittenthal said.

Bahan has taught at Medora Community Schools since 1982 and was happy to be a part of the followup project April 21, just in time for Earth Day on April 22.

“My involvement as a teacher is trying to develop my students’ sense of civic participation by creating service learning projects at Medora Junior-Senior High,” Bahan said. “Being an outdoor enthusiast myself, when Susie came to me with the Sparksville Knobstone Trail project a year ago, it was like having a gift dropped in my lap.”

The Medora seniors completed one phase of the Sparksville project, and the juniors had the next phase, helping along Bahan’s goal of establishing service learning at Medora Community Schools before he retires.

“This has a real sense of urgency for me as I have already submitted my request to retire as soon as I turn 64 on Christmas Eve,” Bahan said. “If I can get the rest of the junior-senior high on line and participating in service learning by the time I leave, I think that will be a nice note to go out on.”

At least 100 hours of volunteer time was donated by the juniors that day, and the need for an Earth Day project for Bahan’s class provided the catalyst for getting the park’s wetland loop trail in shape.

“How lucky can the public get? Not too many other sources of labor like that are available in the county,” Mittenthal said. “For the record, hardworking KHTA volunteers also came from Washington, Morgan and Marion counties to help in addition to the two Jackson County teachers, whose help was precious.”

Christy Sener Townsend, an English teacher at Medora, accompanied Bahan to take the junior class to the park at Sparksville to work on the project.

“I got involved because Mr. Bahan knows that I have a background in community service groups,” Sener Townsend said. “This kind of project would be right up my alley.”

Sener Townsend said the hope is to have further student involvement with the trail, but nothing is set up right now.

“Pat is interested in having a community service cornerstone project, but that is still in development, and then I am relocating and not going to be here for that,” Sener Townsend said. “Now that we’ve established that relationship, we hope to keep it going.”

The boardwalk was completed that day except for a few top boards because the group ran short after there was a change in the board width that was needed.

Sparksville resident Nancy Mock Martinez, who helped build the park’s picnic pavilions, has the lumber and nails to finish the missing 5 feet of boardwalk, Mittenthal said.

“Besides the boardwalk, the rest of the wildlife loop trail was cleared. A lot of digging was needed, which was not easy work,” Mittenthal said. “It’s a better trail now than originally.”

There were 19 juniors on hand for the trail project, including Griffin Morris, who said he had helped his father before with similar work.

“We’ve had to build bridges under our dog kennel, and I have also raked up our garden before and cleared out brush,” Morris said. “The work has been good today, and I’ve enjoyed it. It’s been an experience.”

Students pulled up the old boardwalk and stakes to make way for the new boardwalk and cleared the trail path.

“It’s not super-hard work. It just takes a lot of time,” junior Hunter Browning said. “It depends on if you have the right tools or else some of the work would be next to impossible.”

For the Knobstone Hiking Trail Association, it means their work in the park is nearly complete. There are still funds for an information sign out front, and having the park’s valuable wetland loop trail in nice condition now will likely speed up placement of the signage.

“Some places spend millions recreating wetland habitats, and we have a very valuable one right here donated years ago by farmer Greg McPike,” Mittenthal said. “Wood ducks are nesting here every year, which is a sign of a functioning wetland.”

While gathering up lumber with his fellow students, junior Gavin Henson summed up his experience working on the trail.

“It felt pretty good helping out,” he said. “It’s like we’re doing something good here for everybody else.”

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