Bridges, gazebo set to go in at Sinking Creek site
Story and photos by Jeff Keeling
Elsja Fee’s eyes widened as she peered at the tiny toad she had just captured in Johnson City’s Sinking Creek wetland. Listening intently to Johnson City Parks and Recreation Naturalist Connie Deegan, 9-year-old Fee learned about the toad’s habitat and habits.
Fee and 3-year-old Owen Chandley got a preview late last month of “Jacob’s Park,” a 28-acre, city-owned combination of wetland and wooded ridge off King Springs Road, a half mile east of Mountain View Elementary School. In a short tour of the site and with Deegan’s keen eye helping, they found deer and raccoon tracks, a turtle egg, a still-maturing bullfrog and several of the fingernail-sized toads.
“I love wetlands,” said Deegan, who is helping the Boone Watershed Partnership (BWP) develop the site bisected by Sinking Creek into an environmental learning center and park. “I think it’s just an awesome habitat. There’s so much stuff going on there that it offers a great opportunity to teach and learn.”
Like a turtle progressing slowly over land, the folks behind Jacob’s Park are moving the park deliberatively toward completion.
Trails are in on the wooded slopes of the preserve bisected by Sinking Creek. A recently awarded grant will fund $20,000 worth of educational signage in the restored wetland. A team from Lowe’s Home Improvement’s Jonesborough store will build bridges spanning the creek and a drainage this fall. A local Boy Scout, Jess Anderson, is building three benches for placement along the trail that skirts one of the wetland areas and then climbs the ridge. Part of a fund in honor of the late Jacob Francisco could be used to pay for construction of an outdoor classroom, also this fall.
The completion of all that work would leave the highest-cost piece undone. More than a year ago, engineer Gary Tysinger completed a park design featuring several thousand feet of boardwalk that could take visitors near and even through the fragile wetlands without damaging them. Francisco thinks that with enough signs of progress, the community will become more motivated to step in with additional cash and in-kind donations.
“I kind of would like to just show results,” said Bill Francisco, a BWP member whose late son, Jacob, inspired much of the work occurring at the wetland. “If we get the bridges built and we get the signs up there – and we feel we may be able to get some sort of outdoor classroom built up above the bridges this fall with money that we have – it just seems like a natural thing for someone to come forward and say, ‘gosh, we need to finish this park.’”
The entire site teems with life, from the vernal pools that spawn tadpoles, salamanders and other amphibians in the spring, to the creek filled with fish and the trees, shrubs and tall grasses that are a haven for birds. Deer, raccoons and other mammals inhabit the slopes that feature a wide variety of trees including towering beech, shagbark hickory, oak, poplar and maple trees.
The approach to developing Sinking Creek has some similarities to its more publicized cousin, the Tweetsie Trail. Both have relied primarily on in-kind labor, private fundraising efforts and a core of committed advocates. The trail has seen significant input from city public works crews. Those same crews performed some work reclaiming a couple of the wetlands at the Sinking Creek property as part of a grant obtained by BWP.
That occurred last year, at the tail end of a Tennessee Department of Agriculture grant that BWP used primarily to help residents along Sinking Creek replace aging septic systems with sewer, or at least new septic tanks. The last bit of funding allowed for remediation of some wetlands at the future park. The city graded a parking area at the entrance, and an interpretive sign there explains the importance of wetlands.
Today, Francisco, Deegan, BWP’s Gary Barrigar and others continue collaborating, leading efforts to slowly but surely bring the environmental learning center to full fruition. For Francisco, it is an extension of a mission he undertook 10 years ago following the death of his 6-year-old son, Jacob, from an e coli infection. The source never was confirmed, but Francisco established “Jacob’s Project,” which focuses on education about water quality (particularly e coli contamination).
Sinking Creek is a “303d” listed stream due to its pollutant levels. The recently reclaimed wetlands help filter and settle impurities, while the natural setting of bottomland and ridge draws a broad variety of wildlife — the perfect outdoor classroom for Deegan’s work teaching people about the natural world.
By the end of this year, the property will be enhanced by the Lowe’s-provided ADA-compliant bridges, one over a wash leading to the creek and two over the creek itself. They will lead to trails built last spring by ETSU student volunteers, under Deegan’s supervision, that skirt above the wetland and continue up the ridge and through the mature forest.
Francisco also says that BWP may elect to use funds from the annual “Jacob’s Ride” to construct an outdoor classroom on the ridge side of the creek, just above the wetlands. Finally, a $20,000 grant from the Tennessee Department of Agriculture will fund interpretive signage throughout the park.
Chris Meadows, manager at the Jonesborough Lowe’s home improvement store, said he is pleased that volunteers from his store will build several ADA-compliant bridges at the site using Lowe’s materials. They will take visitors to the site across the creek, connecting them with the trails that skirt above part of the wetland and then climb the slopes above.
“Other than the bridges, any boardwalk that will go in later, signage and the outdoor classroom, the whole design is completely natural,” Meadows said. “After it gets up and going and you see there is an aesthetic draw to go down and walk, exercise, and show children some of the natural wildlife, I just really think the community will get behind this.”
To learn more or to donate, visit jacobfrancisco.com.