Strolling Wildwood

Wildwood Park sits at the north end of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s capital. It has everything a nature park in the city should. An eponymous lake is the main feature covering almost half of the 229 acres. A three-mile path circumnavigates and shorter ones branch off leading through a variety of settings. On a Saturday deep into summer you arrive early to find a parking spot. 

Commencing your stroll in the South Lot, you spy a brilliant white egret hunting for breakfast in the shallow water. Although the scene turns your head — the bird is laser-focused on the slightest movement below the surface. Life in shallow water is a story of who eats whom. Wildwood Lake was dug out from Wetzel’s Swamp at the beginning of the 20th century.  Paxton Creek was rerouted to fill the new lake. The watershed is not large but has seen much land development over the century that sent tons of sediment downstream. Nature has its processes and the effect of deposition here is to be returning Wildwood into a swamp again. At this time of year especially, there is more aquatic vegetation than there is open water in the 90-acre lake.

Heading around the lake counterclockwise you come to a large, strange circular structure of concrete and stone sitting just offshore. This is the Morning Glory, named for its trumpet shape similar to the flower, although from this angle it really looks more like a giant bathtub drain. It is an overflow spillway originally built in 1908. This is how Paxton Creek gets out of the lake and goes under the highway to continue its journey through Harrisburg. The Morning Glory regulates both the level of the lake and the water flow in the creek.

At the southeast corner of the park is the Olewine Nature Center. Built in 1999, it serves as a home for patrons of the park and as a locus for human activities. It is a portal to learning to see nature for all ages — but especially for school groups. On a normal day it bustles with activity.

The east side of the park is a wooded hillside with many walking options. When the water levels cooperate, a boardwalk leads you into the lake with a perch for bird watching. The woodland path splits into upland and lowland routes. You save the upland for another day and take the shoreline path. A white-tailed deer browses casually.  Used to humans in her space, she doesn’t move on until you come close. Deeper in the brush red foxes conceal themselves from daytime intruders. Trees are quite large here. An American sycamore, known locally as a buttonwood, grows by the shoreline. This one dates back to the 1800s. It has witnessed the history of the landscape. 

Wildwood is an urban park. It was constructed during the height of the City Beautiful movement and, like most city parks, is not original nature, but rather was designed by Warren Manning to naturalize and give the conceit of wildness. Native species and natural processes work over time to create a patch of urban nature. Today the park’s internal views frame images of green that could be in a wilder landscape. But the modern soundscape never lets you forget you are in an industrial city. Wildwood is completely walled in by highways, industrial roads, railroads, truck lots, and refrigerated warehouses, all of which contribute to the urban symphony that drifts into the park. 

A retired couple, who are clearly dedicated friends of the park and good walkers, have been pointing out interesting features in the way hosts show guests around town. They show you the connector to get to the upper trail because the lower one is all mud from here on.

The north end of the park narrows so the path squeezes between the four-lane US 22 highway and the lake. A curious oversized concrete coffer sits in the water serving as a secondary spillway. Paxton Creek is flashy, made even more so from its decades of urbanization, and has a bad history of flooding the industrial corridor of Harrisburg. This structure sits waiting for any big flush of runoff and discharges the overflow directly into the nearby Susquehanna River. 

Turning south you come to what is the main street of the park, the Towpath Trail, fed in part from two parking lots coming off Industrial Road on the west side. In the 1830s mules pulled barges upstream into the Appalachians when this towpath was originally built for the old Pennsylvania Canal. Like all such paths, it is level, straight, and ample. Sections of the original canal still exist, although today you find them silted and shallow. 

From this raised berm between the lake and the canal, you have a good vantage to see the marsh plants in their lush summer foliage. In the shady canal, thick stands of broadleaf arrowhead grow in the shallows. These plants provide nursery space for amphibians and turtles. The edible starchy tubers are called duck potatoes.  Onshore is the sunny silphium, a quintessential American flower that calls the prairie home but can raise its simple yellow bloom from moist Pennsylvania woodlands too. It is also called cup flower because the leaves are attached directly to the stem and hold rainwater like a cup.

Standing in the lake water, marsh butterfly weed and rose mallow give a pink hue to the scene during the summer. By now the last flowers of the season are nectar for the bees and butterflies. Standing in the deepest water, the star of the show is the American lotus. In the early summer, masses of creamy yellow flowers emerge from the surface. This lotus only occurs in a few places in Pennsylvania, but where it does it can take over. The entire plant — seed, leaf, stem, and rhizome — is edible. Along with the arrowhead, it was a valuable food source for indigenous societies. By late summer the flowers are gone and you find fleshy seed pods growing on erect stalks looking like thousands of upturned showerheads.

Young families with strollers arrive for an outing. Joggers and walkers pass each other. Birdwatchers gather in hushed gaggles. The most specialized, and best equipped, of the visitors are the photographers, brandishing massive lenses covered in camouflage. On this Saturday there are a dozen — some facing the lake but most facing the shallow canal. A black-capped night heron perched on log has caught the attention of several. Farther down, the legs of a photographer stretch onto the towpath while the rest of him is buried deep in the brush waiting for an eastern painted turtle to turn its head. Wildwood Park is the best place in Harrisburg to spot them, along with snapping turtles, stink pots, box turtles, and wood turtles.

You come full circle and find the South Lot teeming with cars seeking an empty spot. On a day deep in summer, a stroll around the lake shows how important a nature park is in the city. No one should live where they cannot get to nature. The city without it is depauperate. Patches of nature improve cities in myriad ways. Wildwood Park is where small children learn to spot turtles camouflaged on logs, and where older children learn the names of flowers. It is where families forest bathe together and value outdoor beauty. It is where birdwatchers and photographers meet and compare sightings. It is where we observe the rhythmic rise and fall of water levels, giving us a clue to things happening elsewhere in the city.  Making room for urban nature, for native plants and wildlife, is good for the landscape and good for us. It is a reminder of our obligation to let nature endure and to not take over every square foot.

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