2014-01-08 / Family

New trails, new year

Hikers descend on Pocahontas State Park
By Mark Battista

Volunteer Jeff Samuels leads nearly 200 participants on the Annual First Day Hike at Pocahontas State Park in Chesterfield. 
James Haskins/Chesterfield Observer Volunteer Jeff Samuels leads nearly 200 participants on the Annual First Day Hike at Pocahontas State Park in Chesterfield. James Haskins/Chesterfield Observer

A sun-drenched and blue-sky day, along with chilly temperatures, greets about 250 people who gather for the First Day Hike at Pocahontas State Park.

Donning winter clothing, hiking poles and boots, kids, adults, family and friends – along with a few canines – prepare to jump-start the new year with an adventure: 3 miles of trails in the park.

The shriek of a whistle quiets the restless crowd and focuses everyone’s attention. Then, Jeff Samuels, a state park volunteer since 2007 and the pack’s leader, describes the hike and trails we will follow.

Samuels, also a member and trip leader for the Old Dominion Appalachian Trail Club, cautions everyone about hazards such as roots and slick spots and teases the group with some intriguing history of the park.

“The Civilian Conservation Corps built a lot of this park up during the 1930s,” Samuels explains, pointing out the corps museum in a building behind a nearby parking area, along with the dam that created Beaker Lake. The Civilian Conservation Corps also built an amphitheater in 1937.

“Are you all ready to hike?” he asks. The crowd replies with hoots and hollers, then queues up behind him. As they trudge down the path, the group looks like a giant millipede legging its way along the trail. The sinuous line of hikers stretches out beyond 75 yards.

Samuels veered the group to a view of Swift Creek Lake. The lake sparkles in the rising sun, but the trail remains shrouded in a cold shadow.

The group then funnels over a bridge that spans a creek, which spills out of Beaver Lake and empties into Swift Creek Lake. On the north side of the stream, ice still lingers in the shade.

Along with the sounds of chickadees, titmice and nuthatches, hundreds of shuffling feet and friendly chatter fill the air. People talk about the weather, their families, how they ushered in the new year and about other trails they’ve hiked at other times and other places.

The group then lumbers uphill to the camping area and back into the warm sunlight. Hats and gloves come off, and jackets unzip as people warm up.

Every so often, Samuels turns around to check the progress of the group and make sure the “sweep,” the leader’s assistant who brings up the rear of the group, is in sight.

From the camping area, the group picks up on the Old Mill Bicycle Trail. Samuels points out the remnant of an old chimney that marks an abandoned house. He explains that there are at least 15 abandoned homes in the park.

He then leads the group to Beaver Lake Trail and delivers it to one of the overlooks. The sounds of clicking cameras and expressions of awe fill the air as the hikers capture views of the lake and the geese feeding below.

Just below the overlook, arms point skyward and the word “eagle” ripples among the long line of hikers. Soaring over Beaver Lake, contrasting sharply against the blue sky, is a mature bald eagle whose white head and tail glisten in the sunlight.

Upstaged, but still elegant, are three bufflehead ducks drifting on the lake.

The group then descends below the dam and crosses another bridge that strained and held the flotsam from the recent high water. Samuels says the water fortunately receded from the bridge sometime yesterday, permitting our group an easy and uneventful crossing.

A final series of switchbacks delivers the group back to the Heritage Center where the smell of hot dogs grilling welcomes the returning hikers. The Friends of Pocahontas State Park, a volunteer group, provides the refreshments.

Over warm hot dogs and cider, people mingle with friends and fellow hikers.

“Well, we like to hike, and we thought this would be a great way to kind of get a hike in and check out the park,” says Wayne Owen, who makes the trek with his wife, Dianna. The Owens live in Chester and have been hiking for 38 years.

“For a little bit of cider and a couple of hot dogs, people come out, they have a great thing,” says Dianna Owen, “and they’re going to go home and say, ‘we’re going to have to go back to Pocahontas.’”

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