PORT ORCHARD — From what was once a section of woodland where diseased trees had been cut and removed, now stands the interactive, kid-friendly Forest Explorer Trail adjacent to the playground at South Kitsap Regional Park.
By combining a modest $11,000 in funding and plenty of volunteer labor, the engrossing, educational trail now winds through an area once cluttered with cut tree branches, uprooted ground cover and bare stretches where trees once stood.
The new one-third-mile trail came about through funding from the National Recreational and Park Association (NRPA) and The Walt Disney Company, and coordination, staff time and planning from Kitsap County Parks. “Meet Me at the Parks” is a program in which the two entities joined forces to help fund local park improvement projects in U.S. cities. The funding is part of a matching program in which government entities also contribute by providing staff time toward designing the projects.
Disney provided $3,000 for the project, and the Port Orchard Rotary Club chipped in an equal amount, as well as dozens of volunteers used to clear the trail and build the stations. Also helping out were volunteers from Columbia Bank’s Port Orchard branch, Marcus Whitman Middle School and the MountainEars, a Disney fan club.
The program is part of NRPA and Disney’s commitment to providing one million children and families with greater access to play, said Steven Starlund, Kitsap County Parks’ park and open space planner.
“They were looking for innovative ways to bring families back out into the parks,” Starlund said. “Kids and families nowadays are cooped up inside their homes playing video games, watching TV and all that sort of thing.”
First-time visitors to the newly created Forest Explorer Trail will notice that it has taken the form of a natural pathway in a somewhat different fashion than the typical park pathway.
“We just spent the last year restoring the forest by thinning out the trees,” Starlund said. “We wanted to reintroduce people to that forest, which is beginning to thrive again.”
Located in the family portion of the park alongside the Live Steamers miniature train tracks and the children’s playground, the trail is a welcome addition for families wishing to experience the Great Outdoors together while absorbing some educational lessons at the same time.
A challenging design
Designing the nature trail might seem like a fairly cut and dried exercise, but it was more difficult than imagined.
Starlund said the trail originally was to be designed for kids 3 to 8 years old, but plans were incorporated to include elements of interest to older folks. And, particularly important was the need to make it interesting to everyone. Ultimately, the park planner said, the key element was this: it wasn’t about telling, it was about sharing.
“We wanted to combine elements of interest for kids and adults alike,” Starlund said. “But it was a little bit of a challenge. We had to start thinking, ‘What would you want to do in the woods if you were 12 years old?’”
After seeking out answers from park visitors who fit that age group — and asking volunteer members from South Kitsap High School’s track team for their opinions — the solution was to create small “play stations” where youngsters could climb, balance and explore on the trail — and just off the beaten path.
Starlund said it’s natural for children to want to wander through the woods, investigate old tree stumps and hunt for critters, especially insects that are an integral part of the forest’s cycle of life.
With their brainstorming ideas mentally filed away, Starlund and other parks employees took numerous walks through the forested area to rough out an overall plan.
“We walked along the old skid trail that we’d used for thinning the forest and decided to use it, instead of creating a brand-new trail,” the parks planner said. “When we walked around, we found all sorts of interesting things to look at. We realized that visitors also would want to go back into the woods to explore. With many of the [damaged] trees gone, the area has a more open, friendly feeling instead of one that’s dark and confined.”
Designers concluded that because of budget limitations and a desire to keep the plan rustic and real, the trail’s elements would remain mostly natural. Tree trunks would provide places for visitors to sit and listen to a story. Beams on which to walk on, built to the length measuring half the height of the trees in the park, were cut out of wood. The boardwalk was widened by volunteers so that children could tip-toe on the beams while their parents balanced them by holding their hands.
The zig-zag boardwalk also is made out of cut timbers. And an elegant sundial was fashioned out of wood beams with granite blocks that indicate the hours of the day.
The blocks of granite were part of a load that the parks department carted off for the cost of hauling from the site of an old Navy dump, where they once were part of a military hospital. The blocks also form part of an amphitheater created at the trail entrance.
Part of the challenge in designing the trail was to incorporate educational elements to encourage learning and active interaction between visitors. Aluminum signs have been discreetly placed along the trail to inform adult trail-goers about forest ecology. As Starlund noted, however, the information isn’t detailed or dry. It’s simple enough to spark some discussion.
For the kids, the nature lessons are shared by a fictional mountain beaver named Boomer.
“He leads everything off and makes it interesting. Boomer introduces concepts for kids,” Starlund said. “There’s some skills building for kids and they can test themselves if they want to. At every station, there’s something new to learn. It was designed as an homage to Fred ‘Mister’ Rogers and Walt Disney.”
At the ending of the interactive trail is a scenic forest overlook, quiet and comfortable enough to seat family members on an enclosed bench surrounded by a railing. When visitors have finished their trail trek, they backtrack until exiting where they began, at the entrance underneath a wooden “Forest Explorer Trail” sign.
Starlund said heading up the trail project has been a labor of love. Although it was labor-intensive and required plenty of time to bring together the elements, he said it ultimately has resulted in positive feedback from park users.
“It gives kids something to do, and something to do in the woods that offers them a bit of a challenge,” he added. “Personally, this has been the most fun project for me. Those who have used it so far show the enjoyment on their faces.”
The Kitsap County Parks project was one of 25 selected for the national “Meet Me in the Park” competition. The trail will officially open at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 8 with a ribbon-cutting ceremony, guided trail tours and miniature train rides with the Kitsap Live Steamers. South Kitsap Regional Park is at the corner of Lund and Jackson avenues. The Jackson entrance is nearest the explorer trail site.