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Take the trail less traveled as Riverbend Park expands

Take the trail less traveled as Riverbend Park expands

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Though I’ve used this interjection many times when describing people or places in the Catawba Valley, I’m pulling it out once again because, like before, it’s exactly what came to mind when I experienced the place I visited on Sept. 24: WOW!

The 209-acre expansion to Riverbend Park is absolutely beautiful. Of course it added to the experience that I toured the historic farmland in the company of Catawba County Parks Division Manager Blair Rayfield, a trained horticulturalist and self-taught naturalist who knows everything there is to know about the flora, fauna, and history of the property. His passion for the land is infectious. And, there was the fact that I did my sightseeing on a day when countless native plants were in full autumn bloom. A big doe scampering by just added to the joy.

Some background: Riverbend Park, located at 6700 N.C. 16 North in Conover and owned and operated by Catawba County, opened in 1999. I’ve hiked the upland forest portion of the park a number of times, my course occasionally dipping down toward the Catawba River, which runs alongside the grounds. Following Riverbend’s woodland trails reminds me of rolling mountain footpaths.

Blair said Riverbend was supposed to have been a landfill, but it became cost prohibitive due to new regulations. “That’s why we got into the park business,” Blair explained. As someone who loves Riverbend and is in awe of the expansion property, I can only say that a terrible mistake was averted. As Blair pointed out, Riverbend Park is Conover’s number one attraction on TripAdvisor.

With the expansion in 2019, which added seven miles of trails, came Catawba County’s first grassland preservation area, “significant because it is one of the only examples of this type of habitat in the transitional area between the Piedmont and Foothills of North Carolina,” explained Blair.

Riverbend now has two distinctly different hiking/strolling/running/wildlife watching/plant investigating worlds that are side by side: woodlands on one side, grassland on the other.

According to Blair, the county basically was gifted the new site. The Byron Bean family offered the property at a cost well below its value, and a North Carolina Parks and Recreation Trust Fund (PARTF) grant covered the asking price, so no hit to the local tax base.

“This part of the park was created with great attention to detail,” said Blair about the newly added territory. “Approximately 150 acres is open grassland that was previously used as agricultural farmland since the 1800s. This was the site of the A.C. Little farm and ferry . . . The Little ferry was a major crossing point on the Catawba River before many bridges were built. Significant oaks were planted by the Little family as they created the farm. They also created a system of terraces and field breaks to protect the farm and livestock.”

“We have aerial photos of the property from 1938,” Blair continued. “We used them as a guide to preserving the field lines and woodland areas.”

As Blair and I traveled in a one-ton Ford dump truck along approximately 24-foot-wide dense grassy pathways through the new area, Blair talked about this being the third year the expansion property has been out of agricultural use. “It’s beginning to revert back to its native grasses and wildflowers,” said Blair.

I imagined school groups and plant enthusiasts following the lush green lanes, repeatedly stopping to study and photograph boneset, a medicinal plant among settlers; milkweed, which attracts monarch butterflies; goldenrod; foxtail grass; and many more.

“You have to understand every plant out here in order to help it thrive,” Blair pointed out. Thriving is definitely going on. Like the crops of river cane, which looked somewhat like bamboo to me. They’re native, very dense, and home to all sorts of wildlife and insects. Blair said you might see a deer grazing in the open and then, poof, a noise or visitor provokes her to quickly disappear into the river cane plants.

The park staff has developed a delicate balance of letting the area be what nature intended it to be but with careful, timely mechanical grooming to gently tame the property, slowing down non-native growth and encouraging the best native grassland development. Blair explained that if the land was completely left to its own devices, “it would go back to being all early successional woodland.” He added that invasive species, such as Chinese pear trees, must be eradicated — again, mechanically. “Chinese pears can take over a field in five years,” Blair warned.

Much work goes into supporting a grassland, but it’s toil that’s accomplished with great respect for the plants and wildlife. For instance, during ground breeding season April 1 to Sept. 1, staff doesn’t bother nesting areas, so birds such as meadowlarks can breed successfully.

It took two months of staff walking the 209 acres to lay out the trail system before creating the natural surface contour scheme. It makes use of much of the agricultural terracing that was put in place to prevent erosion. “It’s a true green greenway,” Blair suggested. It’s tough, too. We rode on it in that big truck, barely leaving any evidence of our passing through.

To get to Riverbend’s grassland area, you must travel through the woodlands, but it’s not too far, maybe a mile and a half. For the most part, only school groups such as cross country teams and classes, including CVCC and Lenoir-Rhyne University students for whom Riverbend is an outdoor biology lab, are permitted to enter by way of the old road that leads down to the river and the place where A.C. Little’s ferry was docked many decades ago.

“Historically, the acreage was an important farmstead and ferry site for the county,” said Blair. “We like to think of it still as a farm. The historic crops and cattle have changed. Now we focus on crops of native grasses and wildflowers that clean the water and air. That land that was roamed by cattle is now roamed by folks seeking sanctuary in nature. The result is a crop of healthy and happy citizens.”

Had those 209 acres been sold for development, the result would not only have been a major blow to its plant life and wildlife, but Riverbend’s original acreage would have been negatively affected as well. Thanks to the Byron Bean family and PARTF, all of Riverbend is safe.

“We were so grateful to get it,” said Blair. “We want the public to know it’s here. [With the addition, Riverbend now offers] 500 acres of public land [with 19.7 miles of trails] preserved for education and the enjoyment of all.”

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