Cook’s Trail open again, connecting Sandy Creek nature center and park

After being truncated for the better part of a year, the full length of Cook’s Trail is now open to the public again.

 

For safety reasons, Athens-Clarke County officials last year closed a long stretch of bridge and boardwalk near the middle of the trail between Sandy Creek Park and the Sandy Creek Nature Center. Now it’s been repaired, so hikers or runners can again traverse the trail’s entire 4.1-mile course.

The repaired section is one of several stretches of boardwalk along the trail, which runs from the nature center to emerge near the dam that holds back Lake Chapman in Sandy Creek Park.

Approaching 30 years old, Cook’s Trail was actually the first leg of the growing Oconee River Greenways network, said Mel Cochran, administrator of Athens-Clarke County’s Park Services Division, though Cook’s Trail is not paved for cycling as other greenway stretches are or are planned to be.

The repairs on half a mile of boardwalk consisted mainly of replacing the boards on which people walk, not the foundations, which remain sound, Cochran said.

“That boardwalk’s held up pretty well,” she said.

Through much of its length, Cook’s Trail passes through wetlands, which necessitates its boardwalks and bridges.

The water draws wildlife, making Cook’s Trail perhaps the wildest stretch of the greenway.

At this time of year, dragonflies and butterflies abound, and a walker might see a brown water snake sunning itself on a snag passing alongside Sandy Creek or a deer bounding through forest.

It’s also a fruitful stretch for birders during fall and spring migrations. The county’s first wood stork sighting was here, about seven years ago, Cochran said.

It’s not pristine, as in other forested lands, especially near streams and rivers. Invasive foreign plants such as privet and Japanese stilt grass are pushing out native plants. But it remains a refuge for wildlife.

“The apparent isolation and beauty makes Cook’s Trail the crown jewel of pathways in Athens,” wrote former Athens Banner-Herald editor Roger Nielsen in 2002.

The trail is named for retired University of Georgia forestry professor Walt Cook, one of the founders of the nature center back in the 1970s.

“He’s the one who basically had the inspiration,” said Mike Wharton, Ecological Resource administrator for Athens-Clarke County.

Cook also designed the trail and helped with his own hands to build it in the late 1980s.

Years before work started on actually building the trail, Cook, environmental leader Alma Walker and others had to convince county government leaders to back the trail with taxpayer money to help them assemble the land to build it on. Landowners donated some tracts, but the county had to buy much of the land.

It was no surprise to Cook that the trail needed repairs, he recently said.

In 1991, the wood was expected to last about 20 to 25 years, he said. Much of the trail has lasted longer than that, even though the trail has gotten much heavier use than the builders foresaw.

“We totally underestimated the popularity. People wore it out,” Cook said.

The rising popularity of running has also taken a toll.

The impact of running is much harder on trails, said Cook, who at the age of 86 is still designing, building and maintaining trails in north Georgia.

Cook’s Trail is actually one of three trails in the Athens area named for him.

A few years ago, he and a couple of other volunteers repaired the trails at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia, becoming eroded in many stretches by heavy use from runners and walkers.

It took not only a long time, but a lot of people to actually build the trail.

It was largely built with volunteer labor — skilled laborers and others donating their time and tools — though Wharton and a handful of other county employees also put in many hours. Convicts in the county prison farm also helped on a portion.

They even called in the U.S. Marines, Wharton recalled.

Wharton recalled using a hand-operated pile driver to drive home the first of the dozens of pilings — 100-pound poles about 10 feet long and 12 inches in diameter at the narrow ends — he and others installed for the long bridge

At that time, in the mid-1980s, what is now the UGA Health Sciences Campus was the U.S. Navy Supply Corps School. Marines studying there volunteered to help, and carried the big pilings out by hand, Wharton said. Sometimes just one man hauled in one of the pilings by himself.

Follow Lee Shearer at www.facebook.com/LeeShearerABH or https://twitter.com/LeeShearer.

 

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