Thursday, December 29, 2016

Closing Out 2016

Phinizy Swamp Nature Park marks the end of another prolific year on the trail for me.  Though I didn't plan it this way, there has been a swamp theme to my hiking trips this year.  I started back in January in the Louisiana swamps, then went to Dismal Swamp in southeast Virginia, later did Cedar Bog in Ohio (not quite a swamp, but close), then went to the swamps of eastern North Carolina, and finished with Phinizy Swamp near Augusta, GA.  Counting swamps and everything else, I hiked 57 new trails this year for 165 miles in 17 different states, including 2 new states: Missouri and Nebraska.  Overall, I have had a fantastic time observing God's creation in its natural state on the trail this year.

Looking forward to 2017, I should get off to a fast start: I have a trip planned to southern Alabama in January.  I also hope to get to Arkansas (new state!), Kentucky, Michigan, and western Pennsylvania this coming year.  (Aside: I have under-hiked Pennsylvania, considering it is not that far from where I live.  There are a lot of fine state parks up there, and I have only done 9 Pennsylvania hikes, which ranks 16th out of the 39 states I have hiked in.)

Thank you for reading, and see you on the trail in 2017!

David, aka the Mathprofhiker

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Phinizy Swamp Nature Park (Blog Hike #612)

Trails: Rain Garden, Constructed Wetland, River Scar, and Blue Trails
Hike Location: Phinizy Swamp Nature Park
Geographic Location: south side of Augusta, GA
Length: 5.3 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: December 2016
Overview: A very flat hike featuring good birding and many wetlands.
Park Information: http://phinizycenter.org/

Directions to the trailhead: On the south side of Augusta, take I-520 to Doug Bernard Parkway (exit 10).  Exit and go south on Doug Bernard Pkwy.  Drive Doug Bernard Pkwy. 1.2 miles to Lock and Dam Road.  Turn left on Lock and Dam Rd.; there is a sign for Phinizy Swamp Nature Park at this intersection.  Drive Lock and Dam Rd. 0.6 miles to the signed park entrance on the left.  Turn left to enter the park, then park in the visitor’s parking lot, which is the first gravel parking lot on the left.  6 old silos stand at this parking lot’s rear.

The hike: The history of Phinizy Swamp Nature Park is a story of urban environmental reclamation.  From the 1880’s through the 1960’s the City of Augusta dumped untreated wastewater and stormwater directly into Butler Creek, which runs along the west boundary of today’s park.  Many years of this dumping caused Butler Creek and adjacent parts of the Savannah River to become a dead zone incapable of supporting life.
            The passage of the Clean Water Act in 1968 forced the City to construct a wastewater treatment plant, which you drove past on your way in.  When the plant became insufficient to treat Augusta’s wastewater, the City chose to construct a system of man-made wetland cells to function as a tertiary (third-order) treatment step.  These man-made wetlands comprise the majority of Phinizy Swamp Nature Park today.
            The park gets its name from Ferdinand Victor Francois Phinizy, an Italian entrepreneur who in 1778 became the first businessman to set up shop in this area.  In the 1950’s the State of Georgia operated a beef farm here that was staffed by mental health patients, hence the silos at the rear of the parking area.  The City of Augusta bought the land in 1973, but it remained undeveloped until the wetland cells were constructed in 1993.  The non-profit Phinizy Center for Water Sciences, which runs the nature park, was founded a few years later.
            The Center today offers several education classrooms, some research labs, and a Swamp Shop and Visitor Center that is open only on weekends.  The dikes that separate the wetland cells offer many miles of hiking, and the park contains some boardwalks and nature trails that offer a more traditional hiking experience.  The route described here explores both the wooded nature trails and the sunny wetland cell area.  Because the majority of this hike is exposed to the sun, this is not a hike for a hot summer afternoon.  However, my winter visit here was very pleasant, and I saw a lot of waterfowl in the wetlands.
Trailhead at front of parking area
            The trail that starts behind the silos at the rear of the parking area will be our return route.  This hike starts at the front of the parking area where a trail marked “Visitor Center” heads east.  An information board with trail maps also stands here.  Another short trail that starts across the entrance road leads to the Cason Family Cemetery, a pioneer family that lived here in the 1800’s.
            The Visitor Center Trail heads east and quickly reaches a boardwalk over the wetlands of Butler Creek.  This point sits just downstream from where the untreated wastewater entered Butler Creek before 1968, and therefore it was one of the most polluted streams in Georgia back then.  50 years later, this wetland teams with Spanish moss-draped trees and waterfowl, so much so that the park has been named an Important Bird Area.  My bird sightings included egrets, ibis’s, herons, and cranes, in addition to common songbirds such as sparrows, cardinals, and robins.
Butler Creek wetland

A bird-filled tree
            At the east end of the boardwalk, you reach the Visitor Center and the park’s research/education buildings.  Turn left and walk through the grassy playground area to reach the William Bartram Rain Garden, which is named after the famous explorer who came to this area in the late 1700’s.  The small shallow pond at the center of the Rain Garden contained numerous ducks, coots, and cormorants on my visit.  An observation deck gives a good view of the pond.
Rain Garden pond
            After seeing what you can see at the observation deck, turn right to hike the wooden boardwalk that traces three sides of the pond.  When the boardwalk ends, turn right and then continue straight to begin hiking north along the western boundary of the wetland cell area.  A sewage treatment area may not seem like a nice place to hike, but there are rewards for hiking here.  I did not detect any sewage odor (except at one point that I will note later), and the lack of trees make great sight lines for bird viewing.  The abundance of open wetlands make this area feel more like a coastal wildlife refuge than somewhere in east-central Georgia.  Only an occasional low-flying jet from nearby Augusta Regional Airport disturbs the ambiance.
Windshear Tower
            At 0.7 miles, you reach Windshear Tower.  Although this tower looks like a cell phone tower from a distance, closer observation reveals that it is actually a weather monitoring station.  Upon reaching the tower, turn right to begin walking atop an earthen dike between two wetland cells.  The wetland cells are numbered 1 through 12, but it can be hard to identify which cell is which on the ground.  Cell #2 is on your left and cell #3 is on your right during this segment.
            At the eastern end of cells #2 and #3, you reach the Distribution Canal, so named because it distributes partially treated wastewater to and from the cells.  The reedy Distribution Canal is surrounded by a chain link fence, so it does not make the most scenic hiking.  While this route minimizes the time near the Distribution Canal, avoiding it entirely is hard because it runs through the middle of the cell area.  Turn right to begin hiking the gravel road beside the chain link fence.
Wetland cell area
            At 1.5 miles, you reach a gazebo that offers a bench and a trash can.  Turn left here to leave the Distribution Canal and begin a northeastward course with cell #11 on your left and a smaller canal on your right.  Expansive views across the wetland cells spread out to the left.  Just shy of 2.5 miles, you reach the northeast corner of the cell area and a trail intersection.  Angle right to follow a two-track dirt path into the woods.
            Another wetland area sits to the left, but this area features algae-covered water and many Spanish moss draped bald cypress trees in contrast to the sunny cell area.  At 2.7 miles, you reach the eastern end of cell #4, which sits apart from the other wetland cells, and another trail intersection.  Turn left to hike west along the dike that is the southern edge of cell #4.
View from River Scar Deck
            The trail curves gradually left as it passes the only part of the hike that smelled like sewage on my visit.  Just past 3 miles, you reach the wooden River Scar Deck, which offers a nice view of the wooded wetland to the left.  The dike continues to angle left to reach the end of cell #4.  Continue straight to return to the main wetland cell area, then turn right to head around cell #1.
            At 3.8 miles, you reach wooden 3 Ton Bridge, which gets its name from its weight limit.  Turn right to cross the bridge and exit the wetland cell area for good.  At the west end of the bridge, you reach Equalization Pond.  Turn right to begin heading counterclockwise around the pond.  A wooden fence between the trail and the water circumnavigates the pond, which contained numerous ducks, coots, and cormorants on my visit.
Ibis in Equalization Pond
            On the north end of the pond, pass an outdoor classroom on the right and a gravel road that exits right; it leads to the main wastewater treatment plant.  At 4.5 miles, look for a wooden staircase that descends to the right.  Turn right to leave the pond area and begin an unmarked single-track dirt trail the park map calls the Blue Trail.  A boardwalk called the Green Trail used to head left through a wooded wetland, but it is closed now.
            The Blue Trail passes through a loblolly pine forest to come along side Butler Creek at the point where untreated wastewater used to enter the creek.  Butler Creek here flows in a well-defined channel that is lined with Spanish moss draped trees.  After crossing the creek on a wood/iron bridge, the trail curves left with the Mayor’s Fishing Hole, a large pond, on the right.  Ironically, fishing is not allowed at Phinizy Swamp Nature Park.  The trail surface turns to gravel just before you come out behind the silos at the parking lot, thus completing the hike.