Ask anyone in Roxborough what they love about living here, and one of the first things they’ll mention is the Wissahickon, as walking along Forbidden Drive or dining in Valley Green are long-held Roxborough traditions.
But I’ve been worried about the Wissahickon lately. For one, I’m concerned about people walking and hiking and running and biking there without taking proper COVID protections. I’ve also been reading with keen interest news of a spike in usage as people seek refuge from the viral storm-- and leave too much trash behind in their wake. The Inquirer did a big story recently on trash issues there, featuring Andorra neighbors calling for an organized protest over trash and parking. Of course, the Inquirer story features a photo of a kid back-flipping into Devil's Pool - though swimming is illegal there. These stories always include that picture - it’s a requirement..
Then came Isaias, the tropical storm that dumped seven inches of rain on the Schuylkill Center. For my column earlier in the month on the storm, I included a photo of the creek cresting way above Bell’s Mill Road. That was one fierce storm.
With all these worries in mind, I walked Forbidden Drive last week, looking for damage from the storms - and people. Late in the morning, Forbidden Drive at Valley Green was in full use, groups of teens walking from the parking lot likely to Devil’s Pool, none social distancing. Walkers, runners, bikers, and one equestrian accompanied me on the walk - and I was one of only a handful wearing a mask. As I passed below the pool on the opposite side of the creek, I could easily hear people splashing into the water after their dive, accompanied by hoots and hollers. The trash on Forbidden Drive was better than I expected, but I was not at Devil’s Pool.
And the storm damage was readily apparent everywhere - branches down, paths scoured, 8-foot knotweed stems growing creekside flattened, lots of stranded flotsam showing Isaias’ high-water mark, and more. But fresh gravel along the creek’s stone wall near Valley Green (where we all feed the ducks) indicated the site may have been happily receiving some attention already.
I talked with Ruffian Tittmann, the executive director of Friends of the Wissahickon, the group that assists the city in improving the park’s amenities, last week as well. Speaking of Isaias, she told me, “not surprising, it was a big water event with a lot of erosion in the park. There was lots of bank erosion, lots of excising of the landscape on Forbidden Drive, tons of washout, tons of creek sediment deposited everywhere. Most of the benches broke or were pushed downstream. However, I am pleased to see that overall our big streambank improvement projects on Kitchens Lane, Mt. Airy Avenue, and Valley Green south of the inn all withstood the storm very well - gratified to see that work withstand the storm.”
In regards to the inn itself, she noted that “a lot of the investment that we and Valley Green Inn did [in flood-proofing] have worked; it did not have any electric outages or major damage. The creek did not flood from the front, but from water coming down the hill behind the inn.” When I walked past last week, lunch service was just beginning and diners were seated outside.
As to crowds and trash, Ruffian said that “in a normal summer, we have outreach staff with click counters tracking visitation, but this is not a normal summer. We do have car counters, and numbers are a little higher this July than last. The real story for me is the length of the high season-- we’ve had more visitors during the length of the pandemic, and parks across the country are seeing high visitation. Pennypack is having a lot of visitors, and there are lots of stories about state parks being at capacity.
“The big story,” she continued, “is we’ve been telling folks for years to get outside, get your kids outside, and we’re seeing people out there now. Is there a way to leverage their interest for a lasting benefit? How can we be better at managing the flow of people? That’s the big question.” Still, crowds are a challenge. “It is shocking when you see a large bus parked there, when you’re not anticipating a bus.”
As to trash, “it’s not like trash is a new issue for us; we take out seven to 11 tons of trash every year. COVID is the new issue for us. And trash depends on when you’re there - during the week we have lots of people doing their stewardship work [e.g., cleaning trash] so if you go there on a Monday or Tuesday, it might be different.” She mentioned FOW’s Wissaheroes campaign: “we have almost 200 people signed up for park steward packets, and we give them a mask, gloves, and garbage bags.” Hey Roxborough, register on their website; become a Wissahero!
“We need more green spaces and more investment in our green spaces,” Ruffian concluded. “People are looking for spaces even more natural, not just the big lawn with a pavilion. We have a lot to do for resiliency - like better/more staffing to provide more information to people, and we need to focus on parking, restrooms, infrastructure.” All of course in a pandemic where city budgets are stretched beyond capacity.
As I write this, a new story appears in the Inquirer with the idea to fill Devil's Pool with rocks to chase the swimmers away, a nonstarter for me. So while it survived Isaias, I am still worried about the Wissahickon.
Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Upper Roxborough, tweets @SCEEMike, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.