Tag Archives: Parks

Fairfax County’s Favorite Park Prepares for Winter

Burke Lake Park remains a popular destination even during the cold months.

Burke Lake Park remains a popular destination even during the cold months.

Burke Lake Park is a popular place. Approximately 2.1 million visitors come to the park each year. They come to catch fish, paddle canoes, ride the miniature train, play putt-putt, spin on the antique carousel, pitch a tent, play disc golf, eat a picnic lunch, walk a dog, ride a bike, see children’s entertainment in the amphitheater, and walk or run around the 218-acre lake. You get the picture. Our parks with athletic fields may see more total visitors due to the number of teams that rotate through for games, but Burke Lake is far and away Fairfax County’s busiest traditional park.

The trails are well-traveled throughout the year, but the majority of visitors come during the summer months when the marina, campground, and amusements are open. Now that seasonal staff has returned to school and the Ghost Train has pulled into the station for the last time, maintenance workers are busy winterizing the park and preparing for the crush of visitors next spring.

Superintendent of Maintenance Will Jennings has worked at Burke Lake for 24 years. He has seen it all, but his passion for Burke Lake’s upkeep has never waned. Listening to him talk, it’s obvious how much he loves every inch of the 880-acre park. I recently sat down with Jennings and his 19-year-old African gray parrot, Samson, to talk about what it takes to winterize the park. The list of tasks was long – and didn’t even include the golf course chores – but Jennings was confident in his crew’s ability to complete it.

The Ghost Train’s last ride in late October marks the end of the season for the miniature Central Pacific Huntington train. After it is serviced and cleaned the train is parked inside the tunnel and the garage door-style doors are pulled closed. The train will remain in this dark, dry storage area until spring’s return.

The miniature train will emerge from the garage next spring.

The miniature train will emerge from the garage next spring.

The antique carousel horses are removed and stabled in a secure shed behind the maintenance shop, and the top of the carousel is removed before too many leaves pile up. The canvas top is cleaned and put away for safekeeping.

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The park’s fleet of boats spends a lot of time on the water during the summer months – over 5,000 rentals! Damages sustained throughout the summer need to be repaired. Oar locks are fixed on the rowboats and seams are re-welded on the aluminum canoes. Boats are dragged away from the water’s edge, stacked, and locked together. Trolling motor batteries are charged or replaced and put away until next year, and the boat house is shuttered and locked.

Picnic tables are leaned against trees to prevent puddles of rainwater and piles of snow from accumulating and causing water damage. The tables will receive a fresh coat of paint in the spring, no matter what. Grills in the campground are covered with trash bags to prevent them from rusting. Even with efforts to protect them, 20 to 30 grills need to be replaced each year. Fire rings, which tend to go missing if left out for too long, are collected from the campsites and safely stored.

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Leaves, which decompose into dirt and hold water if left alone, are blown from the trails. Water fountains are turned off and lines are cleared of any remaining fluid. Steps are taken to winterize the three bathrooms that are kept open and unheated all winter. Antifreeze is pumped into the plumbing at the campground’s bathhouse to prevent pipes from freezing. Dumpsters are stored at the campground to save money on removal (they have a way of filling up with illegally dumped trash if left out). Two bins are kept at the shop and one is left at the golf clubhouse. The ice cream parlor vendor cleans the vending and dining areas and removes stocked goods before the building’s heat is lowered.

Walkers, cyclists, and cross-country runners can look forward to a resurfaced trail. The maintenance crew will spread 300 tons of gravel on the lakeside trail this winter. Partial funding for this project came from a local photographer who sold calendars featuring images of the park and donated the proceeds for trail improvements.

As may be expected, trees are the root of many of the problems in the park. Jennings said trees are the biggest issue the park faces and that the agency’s tree crew is smaller than ever, which means he and his guys help out wherever possible. Trees on trails, dead trees that need to be removed, and trees that fall during storms all require attention – and they’ll get it. But Jennings knows that come spring, Burke Lake Park will be in tip-top shape and ready to welcome back the throngs of daily visitors. As his pet parrot Samson is fond of saying, the park will be “pure butter, baby!”

Written by Matthew Kaiser, deputy public information officer

Looks Nice Outside

Fall Colors

The temperature is 71 degrees outside right now. One of those to-die-for fall days, a blue sky with cloud puffs balanced on a bowl of Trix-colored trees – raspberry red, lemon yellow, and orange orange.

I’m lucky. I have a window in my Herrity building office. It overlooks a patch of trees that sits between the Fairfax County Government Center and the Fairfax Corner shopping center. Probably doesn’t sound very exciting to a naturalist or volunteer who spends time at a place like Burke Lake or Huntley Meadows, but that patch of trees is important to me. There are times when it’s mine, and just mine. Nobody else around it.

I do a lot of writing, and those trees are often my inspiration, something to look at when I need to clear my mind. Often I look at them and words start bouncing through my keyboard. Like now.

I’m in my office, writing. One year ago, on a similar day, I wrote a first draft for an article in ResOURces newsletter. It was about trails at Riverbend Park and the Riverbend Park Tree Walk. The first draft of the article opened like this:

Remember sitting in your office and staring out a window, wishing you were outside because it was such a beautiful day?

See? It’s true. Writers write what they know. The article talked about remembering those days you wished you were outside, and then getting outside when you have the chance.

Or maybe, instead of waiting to see if we have a chance, maybe we should create that opportunity. Consciously decide to go take a walk in a park.

There are over 400 county parks with patches of trees like my little one outside my window and across the street. Every one of them is an opportunity for a moment of refreshment.

It is a nice day. Blue sky, autumn-drenched trees nearing their peak, perfect temperature. Those trees, like the ones in parks all over the county, aren’t very far away from me. Probably some not far from you, either.

I think I see an opportunity before I go home.
Author David Ochs is the Manager of Stewardship Communications for the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Resource Management Division.

Teens, Digs, Toys And Antiquities: A new archaeology program at ECLP

Archaeology program participants may find artifacts from the 1700s and 1800s, or even older.

Archaeology program participants may find artifacts from the 1700s and 1800s, or even older.

Fairfax County teens and tweens with an interest in archaeology have a chance in August to spend a week side-by-side with a professional archaeologist excavating an historic site.

It’s an opportunity to get out in the field and do the real thing.

Two week-long archaeology programs for 12-to-18 year-olds are coming up at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park (ECLP) in Chantilly. Eric Malmgren of ECLP and Chris Sperling of the James Lee Center, home of the Fairfax County Park Authority’s archaeology offices, have prepared a small site for excavation, and it’s a site that almost certainly will produce multiple finds.

The chosen site is near a dairy complex that was established when the park was a family farm in the 1700s and 1800s. There probably will be broken pieces of equipment and pottery that were used around the dairy. ECLP Manager John Shafer thinks the potential for numerous discoveries is so likely that he says, “It’s going to be like they’re opening up a toy chest.” Anticipated discoveries would include artifacts that have not been seen in hundreds of years.

There’s a bonus. The site overlooks a clean spring, which means it’s an area that Native Americans may have frequented. That opens the possibility of finding artifacts that could be 8,000 years old.

Teens in the class will work with Megan Veness of the James Lee Center and learn about the entire process of archaeological work. They’ll take home some of the tools they’ll use, such as knee pads, a trowel and notebook. They’ll also gain an appreciation for applied science and cultural history through working as part of a professional team — and maybe even an appreciation for all those dishes washed and rooms cleaned at home. Washing and sorting artifacts is part of the job. The experience also includes learning multi-discipline skills such as GPS point and grid layout, excavating, documenting, cataloguing and proper preservation of the artifacts.

Instructors will explain the context and history of whatever is found and will make connections to the original people who lived at the site. The plan is to present the teens with an experience that could enhance college resumes and give them something to write about in their college essays. And it’s a hands-on chance to dig deep into a career possibility.

The Archaeological Dig Experience runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. during the week of Aug. 5-9 and again from Aug. 12-16.  The program cost for Fairfax County residents is $425 and $440 for non-residents.

Saving Nature By Learning To Live With It: The Benefits Of Native Plants

Dr. Doug Tallamy is a Professor and Chair of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware. He is the author of “Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens.” He recently spoke to about five dozen land managers, naturalists and public service employees of Fairfax County. His appearance was funded by the same fund that produces the Park Authority’s Stewardship Brochures.

Replacing turf lawns with native plants creates favorable habitat for wildlife.

Replacing turf lawns with native plants creates favorable habitat for wildlife.

If half of American lawns were replaced with native plants, we would create the equivalent of a 20 million acre national park – nine times bigger than Yellowstone, or 100 times bigger than Shenandoah National Park.

The average, everyday homeowner can trigger dramatic reversal of environmental damage without waiting for changes to laws or for leadership from government or business. Dr. Doug Tallamy of the University of Delaware believes that and cites the saving of the Atala butterfly as an example.

In a recent address to Fairfax County employees, Tallamy said the Atala butterfly was thought to be extinct in the 1970s. Then landscapers started placing the insect’s food source, a native plant called the coontie, around houses — not to help the butterfly, but because the plant was attractive in home landscapes. The result – a butterfly thought to be extinct found the suburban plants and today appears to be on the rebound.

Tallamy believes homeowners everywhere can have that kind of influence on their environment. To those who have forgotten or who have never known an environment other than modern suburbia, he says, “There are very few places where nature is functioning as it once did.”

Biodiversity is a key term in this discussion. It simply means how many different plants and animals there are at any place. That’s important, because each plant and animal plays a particular role in the outdoors as does each player on a football team. Take away the tight end and the quarterback can’t function because opportunistic defensive players (think of them as invasive plants) come rushing through and mess things up. If you continue to remove offensive players, the offense eventually collapses.

The same is true of a machine. Take out the rivets, and the machine falls apart.

“Biodiversity losses are a clear signal” that humanity’s support structure is failing, Tallamy says.  “Plants and animals are the rivets that sustain us.”

His suggestion: Don’t think about the environment globally. Ask, “What is happening in your front yard?”

Lawns, in his view, establish privacy. They were “not developed to share that space with other living things.” He cited numbers to support that assertion — monarch butterfly populations down 90%, bobolink (and some residents may even ask, “What’s a bobolink?” It’s a bird) populations down 97%, and total bird numbers down 50% over recent decades.

Monarch butterflies are rarely seen in some places now. People in their 50s and 60s will remember seeing them commonly last century.  What’s happened? Their food source has been removed. Tallamy says they’ll come back if homeowners plant milkweed again.

Where have all the Monarchs gone?

Where have all the Monarchs gone?

“We’ve come to see plants as decorations,” adds Tallamy. Turf is one of those plants. Lots with lawns don’t clean water, don’t provide clean air, and don’t support wildlife. Developed spaces are trying to borrow ecosystems services from elsewhere, but there is no “other place” where these ecosystem services are produced. “Our yards support very little biodiversity because they were not designed to do that,” says Tallamy. “We can save nature if we learn to live with nature.”

One solution is to plant native species. That leads to biodiversity. In order for a land area to be productive, there must be large numbers of insects which feed on the plants, and in turn feed the larger animals. Our native insects cannot eat non-native plant species. Yards planted with non-native species support almost no wildlife.

In addition, not all natives are equal. Some groups of plants support many more species of animals than others. For example, native oak trees support over 550 species of butterflies and moths. The larvae of these butterflies and moths, caterpillars, are the primary food used by birds when raising their young. Lose the caterpillars and lose the birds – support the caterpillars and support the birds. By bringing nature back into our landscapes, we reconnect with nature, provide benefits for other organisms and enrich ourselves.

Aren’t small parks and preserves the answer? Tallamy says they’re not big enough. Small populations of plants and animals are subject to local extinction during natural boom-and-bust cycles. “Our natural areas are not large enough to sustain nature,” Tallamy says.

Does a yard have to be 100% native? No. Tallamy says just move in the direction of native plants, and know what the plants in your yard are doing and not doing. Some are “biologically inert.” He says, “Think of them as statues.” He told his audience there are steps “each one of you can do at your own home at your own pace.” And remember to make sure any non-native plants are not invasive plants.

So what do we do? Tallamy offers this:

  • Create corridors, natural connections between your yard and the neighbor’s yard
  • Reduce lawn size
  • Out with invasives, in with native plants
  • Use lawn only in walking areas. That’s where turfgrass shines
  • Got leaves in the fall? Put them on your flower garden as mulch. Still have leaves? Make your garden bigger.

Tallamy says that if half of American lawns were replaced with native plants we would create the equivalent of a 20 million acre national park – nine times bigger than Yellowstone, or 100 times bigger than Shenandoah National Park.

The environmental movement intensified in the 20th century and continues today with us. It’s our turn to choose our legacy. What you protect today will still be around tomorrow for your children, and those children will form their outlook toward the environment from you. As Tallamy told his listeners, “There is no better way to expose children to nature than to bring nature home to them.”

Written by Dave Ochs, manager, Stewardship Communications

Marge Says

Seniors get exercise and catch up with friends during a water aerobics for arthritis at South Run RECenter.

Seniors exercise and catch up with friends during a water aerobics for arthritis class at South Run RECenter.

Oh, we all have our aches and pains, our pacemakers, joint replacements and health problems but they seem less significant when we are there together. Besides, none of us is particularly stunning in a bathing suit at this point in our lives anyway.

Marge says to me, “Why don’t you write a story about us, George? We’re a unique group.” Indeed, I guess we are. We are the ten o’clock water aerobics arthritis class at South Run Park. Of course, far from all of us are in that class because we suffer with arthritis. I mean, when you are a senior, who wants to rush to get up and get to a class at 8 or 9 in the morning? Coffee and the newspaper are much more fun until you can get your body going, and we all agree that it takes longer and longer for that to happen. Oh, we all have our aches and pains, our pacemakers, joint replacements and health problems but they seem less significant when we are there together. Besides, none of us is particularly stunning in a bathing suit at this point in our lives anyway.

The first task of the day is counting the men. Are there four or five of us today? Maybe six. Where is Joe? Haven’t seen Dave since last week. We have a new guy. One day we are going to outnumber the women. Bill, the lead counter, is 89. If only I could live to 89, I should do half as well as he. Bill is an amazing gent. He travels all over the United States visiting family, makes several annual trips to Florida on the auto train and is in a perpetually positive and humorous state of mind.

There are scores of interesting folks, Anna, who talks frequently of her sick cat, and though in her 80s leaves class and invites all of us to meet her and friends at McDonalds for lunch every day, who says McDonalds appeals only to young folks? Sam, who says he is trying to overcome 45 years of inactivity, May, always with tales of the wild kindergarten grandchild and those teachers who reminisce about their experiences in the classroom. Politics is outlawed and that is good for all of us.

Don’t get the idea that water aerobics is not serious business, it is. However, first we need to find out what Pete has planted in his garden, how tall the corn is, if there are any signs of tomatoes yet. How Shirley’s and Fred’s trip across the Atlantic on the Queen Mary went. Who is reading what book and will they share it when they finished and a dozen or so other equally important things.

In a fifty-five minute class surely there is time for a little bit of chatter before, Carolyn, the instructor says, “If all you are going to do is talk, then move to the back corner.” All gets quickly quiet for a few moments and we attempt to follow the instructions all the while amazed at Carolyn’s energy level and how easily she can move her body in ways that most of us couldn’t even twenty years ago. She is patient with us as she yells out, “Watch your posture, stand up tall, you’re leaning.” Or our favorite, “faster, faster.” I am always certain that I am the only one that is leaning forward. But I know I am not the one going slow.

After about twenty-five minutes we grab our noodles and ride them like we did our pretend ponies when we were little kids. What fun! Who can paddle without their legs touching the bottom of the pool, who touches and who cheats doing a combination of both. On occasion, we take the noodle in one hand and swing it wildly in the air making certain that as we do it splashes the water periodically so someone will complain they are getting their hair wet. Of course we stretch the noodle in every possible uncomfortable position.

In the end, Carolyn wishes us well and tells us that we are finished for the day. Whew! We are tired but it is time for our reward. Out of the pool, we grab towels and rush to the hot tub to finish our conversations, relax, check on everyone’s weekend, children, and grandchildren and just soak in the warm water. It seems that we have plenty to say. We bid our farewells and then it is off to our own activities until Monday, Wednesday or Friday, whichever one is next.

Thinking about us, I am reminded of the quote from Margery Williams “Velveteen Rabbit”: “When someone really loves you, then you become real. Generally by the time you are real most of your hair has been loved off, your eyes droop and you get loose in the joints. But once you are real it lasts forever.” A collection of grandmas and grandpas, we are about as real as it gets and in spite of our lack of hair and loose joints, we can always count on having a really good time.

Written by George Towery