Riverside Park: transition to nature area


“Looks like this might have been a nice park at one time.”

That’s an accurate assessment of Riverside Park on the north side of Morenci. It really was a nice park at one time.

The quote comes from a recent park visitor who stopped by Riverside on a geocaching adventure. In December 2003, someone placed a cache—a black box with trinkets and a sign-in sheet—and since then, 38 hunters have logged in their visit on the Geocaching.com web site.

coneflower In the sport of geocaching, the coordinates of a cache are posted online and hunters use a GPS receiver to track it down.

Two weekends ago, an unusually large number of visitors stopped at the park. A “geocache bash” was underway at Harrison Lake State Park and Riverside’s RiverBend cache presented the closest site in Michigan. For several visitors, it was their first Michigan find.

Hunters from five states visited, and the messages they posted about the park leave some interesting perspectives.

Looks like this might have been a nice park at one time.

– a geocacher from Toledo

Back in the 1920s and 30s, hundreds of visitors chose Riverside for swimming—hundreds in a single, hot day. The creek was dammed and a wide pool formed for swimmers.

On one hot July day in 1930, 2,424 people visited the park with its 10-stall bath house.

The park lost its status as the best swimming hole in the area when a pool was constructed at Wakefield Park in 1941.

In the 1960s, the steps that led down to the swimming area were still in place. Traces of the dam are still present today.

This is a really nice, quiet area to take a walk.

– geocacher from Cincinnati.

In 1974, at the request of the Morenci Garden Club, city council declared the park a natural area. There were plenty of wild raspberries and elderberries to eat. A variety of wildflowers grew in the park, from wakerobin trillium in the spring to monkey-flower in the summer. It was a fairly wild place.

In the 1980s, efforts were made to tame the park. Extensive mowing put an end to many wildflowers and the raspberries disappeared. Two fire pits were established, picnic tables were brought in and a ball field was built.

I think this is the baseball diamond that time forgot.

–  geocacher from Elmore, Ohio, east of Bowling Green

A ball diamond was first constructed in 1936 through the Public Works Administration. A new backstop was built by the city in the 1980s in an effort to rejuvenate the park. Summer ball games were played at Riverside for a while—maybe a season or two—but it was probably mosquitoes that made it a challenging place to play. Mosquitoes have always made Riverside challenging for most any activity.

The lack of mosquito talk by the geocachers is a testament to this odd summer where a visitor can return from Riverside with nary a bite. It won’t last. Wait until next year, maybe earlier.

This was a fun cache in a rundown old park.

– geocacher from Defiance

A rundown old park. That’s what it looks like today, but not to everyone. Some people see it as a recovering park, as an area rebounding from the impact of the mower and chain saw.

In April 2004, city council accepted a plan presented by the high school’s Green Earth Club (GECKOs) and approved a new designation for the park: Riverside Natural Area.

The plan called for mowing to be limited to a trail that meanders around the perimeter of the park. The GECKOs would plant sycamore trees and wildflowers in an area along the creek that had been cleared of vegetation.

Not everyone was willing to let go of the old Riverside Park. A day after the GECKOs planted, the new “natural area” signs were torn down. Vehicles continued to drive across the high area and down the hill toward the creek—further eroding the bank of the hill and forming ruts in the newly planted restoration area.

Again this summer, bicyclists are digging holes and creating hills for riding challenges. Old uses of the park are hard to give up.

Now we know what stingweed is.

– geocacher from West Chester, near Cincinnati

At this time of the year, stinging nettle is king. It’s most everywhere all along Bean Creek. That and poison ivy.

Nettle and poison ivy aren’t the only way the park is moving toward a "natural" appearance. It’s part of the restoration of the habitat that once grew in the area.

To most eyes, this probably looks like a mess. Giant ragweed will soon reach more than 10 feet into the air. Common "weeds" such as Queen Anne's Lace, bindweed, mullein and poke are taking over the area that was scraped down to the dirt two years ago.

But think about that: two years ago dirt, now a diversity of plants, including vervain, soapwort, evening primrose, coneflower, wingstem, figwort, fleabane, mints, wild cucumber, touch-me-not, wild yam, sunflowers and grasses.

That seems pretty good for one year of letting things alone. In the spring there was tall meadow rue, trillium, isopyrum, trout lily and more. The fall brings a new selection.

What an awesome site. Lovely trail on this hot, hot day.

– geocacher from Ann Arbor with 1,638 finds to his credit

Naturalist David Wilamowski was sent down to the Bean last week to take an inventory of woody plants. He didn’t stay within the confines of Riverside, but what’s growing near the park could eventually make its way back into the park.

He came up with an impressive list of 42 species of trees, 16 shrubs and 10 vines. Sixty-eight in total, and the list grew every time he went back for a visit.

Four different willows, four maples, three ashes. Bladdernut, waferash, pawpaw, sassafras and witch hazel. Spicebush, wahoo, black haw and nannyberry. Moonseed, carrion-flower, greenbrier and wild cucumber. It’s a rich and diverse area.

This is a neat park. Looks like it’s almost underappreciated.

– geocacher from Waterloo, Ind.

He’s probably right, although a bench erected by the GECKOs (later vandalized and rebuilt with the help of the Bean/Tiffin Watershed Coalition) is getting more and more use. The park is often visited at noon by people on a lunch break. In this nearly mosquito-less summer, this is the year to walk Riverside’s trail.

A nice walk in a very nice out-of-the-way spot.

– geocacher from Waterloo, Ind.

Nice hike along the river.

– geocacher from Lorain, Ohio, who’s visited 1,469 caches in 16 states

Beautiful hidden area.

– geocacher from Lenawee County

Riverside Nature Area’s fans are increasing, even if they aren’t from Morenci.

It’s not just a “neat park” with a “nice hike,” it’s a very unique parcel of land.

  - July 27, 2005