HARRISON — Harrison Elementary School sixth-graders have spent the past six months revitalizing the Husky Hike Nature Trail, thanks to a $500 grant from the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

The trail at the school on Route 35 was founded in 1993 by former teacher Carl Backman. At times, high school seniors worked on the three-tenths-mile path. Mostly, it was left to be reclaimed by nature.

Harrison Elementary School students Alyssa Page, left, Noa Tsapis, Harlee Roy and Sara Davis show off a natural swing on the Husky Hike Nature Trail at the school on Route 35. Advertiser Democrat photo by Dee Menear

“I’ve wanted turn the simple walking path into an outdoor learning environment for a few years, but there was no money,” said Rob Ripley who teaches the science, technology, engineering and math program. “Getting the grant gave me the push I needed to do the project.”

The grant was awarded in January but, because of snow, not much physical work could be done. Instead, students spent the winter studying ecosystems and brainstorming ways to improve the trail. Ideas included adding birdhouses, a map kiosk and informative signs.

Harrison Elementary School sixth-graders Alyssa Page, left, and Noa Tsapis talk about the birdhouse they designed and built for the Husky Hike Nature Trail at the school. Advertiser Democrat photo by Dee Menear

By the time April rolled around, the trail workers, along with 13 students from other grades, were able to walk the trail. They made note of where work needed to be done and where features could be added.

“We found white-tailed deer fur and deer scat,” said sixth-grader Sara Davis. “We cleared out the trail and I learned stuff I didn’t know about nature. Did you know ferns are coiled when they first come out of the ground?”

As the snow melted and flora began emerging, students identified species of plants that grow along the trail. They were intrigued by a woody vine that had wrapped around other trees. “We discovered it is an invasive species called Asian bittersweet,” Ripley said.

When it came time to decide which signs should be placed on the trail, pupils decided information about the invasive plant and its native counterpart, American bittersweet, had to be included.

“We learned a lot about native and invasive plants,” pupil Harlee Roy said. “Invasive species can control every other plant. If there are too many, they take over the habitat and native species disappear.”

Harrison Elementary School sixth-graders Noa Tsapis, left, and Alyssa Page inspect deer tracks found on the Husky Hike Nature Trail at the school. Advertiser Democrat photo by Dee Menear

Other signs along the trail share information about poison ivy, chickadees and red-backed salamanders. “We wanted to share information about things that actually live and grow here,” Ripley said.

When the trail was dry enough to begin work, they spent many class periods clearing and raking it. They moved brush and used natural materials to enhance it. They used sticks to cover a muddy area and used downed trees to line the path. They identified a circle of boulders as an outdoor classroom area. They incorporated an area for yoga and exercise.

“Many students wanted to create birdhouses as a decorative way to encourage more birds along the trail,” Ripley said.

The idea became an engineering project. Pupils were asked to design birdhouses using single pine boards 6 feet long and 6 inches wide. They researched and designed their birdhouses prior to cutting the pieces.

“As students started to assemble them, they realized some plans were not what they had hoped for,” Ripley said. “We had to put improvisation and problem-solving skills to use.”

One of many informative signs along the Husky Hike Nature Trail at Harrison Elementary School. Students researched the difference between invasive Asian bittersweet and native American bittersweet before designing the sign. Advertiser Democrat photo by Dee Menear

The result is a collection of brightly colored houses spread out along the trail. Stepping stones and birdbaths were designed by art students.

“My favorite part was going out and seeing what nature really is,” said pupil Noa Tsapis as she pointed to deer tracks imprinted in soft dirt.

The school year may be over, but the project is not.

“My hope is to add more to the trail with future ecosystems classes,” Ripley said.


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