By Kellie Patrick
The small ripples on the water’s surface sparkled in the springtime sunlight like the facets of a diamond. An air force of swallows darted over the coastline surface, their acrobatics yielding a lunch of insects for the arrow-shaped birds. The about 40 people who came to Pennypack Park to walk a section of the proposed North Delaware Greenway trail could not believe their luck: The big river was showing off. “What could be more wonderful than having access to such a beautiful location?” asked Margaret Philippi, 63, who lives near the Parkwood section of the city in the Far Northeast and plans to hike the trail once it is complete.
Philippi won’t have too long to wait.
The North Greenway trail is a project of the non-profit Delaware River City Corporation (DRCC), and Executive Director Sarah Thorp said the Pennypack section will be the first completed. “We are starting in August, and it should take six months of construction,” Thorp said. About $350,000 of a $1 million grant from the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources will fund the project, she said. Tucked behind the prison complex, a retirement home, and an industrial/commercial stretch of State Road, this part of the Pennypack Park is “a hidden treaure,” Thorp said. “Even people who live near here don’t know about it.” Part of her organization’s mission is to reconnect Philadelphians with the river. But even residents who come to Pennypack often have not seen places the new trail will take them. Behind the sports fields, a woodchip path will wind down the tidal flats, frequented by shorebirds.
Even the noises of nearby I-95 were hard to hear through the dense wooded area, although there was the occasional sound of shots fired at the police academy.
Another section will lead visitors through a meadow and to a man-made wetland, constructed by the Philadelphia Airport in exchange for extending a runway through a natural wetland. “This is the only area in Northeast Philadelphia that’s like this,” said Frank Windfelder, a retired Northeast Catholic teacher and the secretary of the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club. “You’ll see birds here that you’d never see in your back yard.” Windfelder, viewing scope in tow, identified several birds for today’s walkers, including an orchard oriole perched in a tree and an osprey that soared high over head – likely one of a pair nesting nearby, he said.
A vast meadow surrounds the wetland, and the tawny remnants of last year’s tall grasses still swayed in the breeze, along with this year’s green crop. This summer, the field will burst with wildflowers and the butterflies who sip their nectar, said landscape architect Mark Jendrezejewski, who designed this portion of the trail specifically to take in as many landscapes and habitats as possible. Interpretive signs along the way will teach visitors about the habitats and animals who live there, he said.
James Donaghy, the DRCC’s Vice Chair and Deputy Managing Director for the City of Philadelphia, said part of the meadow must always stay meadow – in fact, trees are removed. A big mound at the site was once one of the places Philadelphia dumped ash from its residential waste incinerators, he said. The sites have been sealed off since environmental rules were toughened in the 1970s, he said. Monitoring shows no signs of leaching, he said, but tree roots could rupture the special fabric that seals the ash in.
Other portions of the trail will be less green and more residential, industrial or commercial, said James Donaghy, the Corporation’s Vice Chair. Interpretive signs along those portions will teach other lessons, such as the history of the area or industry. The Pennypack portion of the trail includes a loop, which will make it easy for visitors to walk just this section, Thorp said. “But they can also park, get on the Greenway, and ride their bikes from here to Maine,” she said. That’s because the Greenway is part of a larger effort, the East Coast Greenway, which would form a continuous trail from Maine to Florida. Saturday’s walk was the second in a series of five that will trace the entire proposed path of the Greenway. To see the schedule, go to http://www.drcc-phila.org/events.