A Refuge for All

Krista Connor

The DuPont Environmental Education Center and Russell W. Peterson Urban Wildlife Refuge, at the end of the Riverwalk, provide respite for bald eagles, turtles, frogs—and humans

Naturalist Dakin Hewlett has discovered a way to take nature into the city of Wilmington rather than waiting for people to venture outside its boundaries. Hewlett is watershed education coordinator at the DuPont Environmental Education Center (DEEC), located at the end of the Riverwalk on the Wilmington Riverfront within the Russell W. Peterson Urban Wildlife Refuge.

During warmer months, Hewlett rides a bicycle contraption dubbed the Nature Mobile up and down the Riverwalk, providing pop-up environmental education activities. You’ll find her two to three times a week this summer at various spots along the trail—outside the Riverfront Market or Dravo Plaza, for instance.

From a hefty box attached to the bicycle, she’ll unveil local ecological finds for passersby: turtle shells, animal furs, live macroinvertebrates, along with watershed maps and binoculars with field guides. By doing this, she introduces community members to their environment, trails, waterways, and not least, the DEEC.

“People really love the idea of having a roving naturalist cart and are often surprised to learn about what animals and plants call their watershed home,” says Hewlett. “I make sure there is a little something for both kids and adults. The best feeling is when I get to know some of the names and faces of the community members that I see repeatedly.”

The Nature Mobile is just one example of community outreach implemented by the DEEC, an extension of the Delaware Nature Society (DNS).

Located within the urban wildlife refuge where 212 acres of tidal marsh adjoin the Christina River, DEEC is the city’s most natural space where the city, river, and marsh meet. This makes it an ideal outdoor education destination for children, especially kids who live in the city with little to no access to parks and wildlife.

Maggie and Sora Clarke-Fields check out the wonders of the Nature Mobile.

Says John Harrod, DEEC manager: “We’re able to work with people who may not have the ability to go to, say, Bombay Hook, or some of the other Delaware Nature Society sites just north of here.” 

Training Aimed at Teens

With this mindset, last year the DNS developed the RENEW program (Reaching and Engaging through Nature to Empower Wilmington), which is anchored at the DEEC. RENEW connects Wilmington youth to nature-focused STEM programs and activities, and conducts outreach programs in Wilmington schools, city parks and community centers. These programs even include internships for high schoolers, and the DNS is developing other work-ready programs and activities to further train Wilmington teens in jobs that span many fields, including environmental and scientific.

Those projects are just a start. At DEEC, a variety of school and summer options based onsite, along with kids’ field trips, outdoor projects and more geared for children ages 6-12, are some of the site’s most popular programs (See pg. 35 for details). There’s a little something for adults, too. Zumba fitness classes, education tours about recycling, outdoor adventures for 20-to-30-somethings, pre-happy hour kayaking—the list continues at delawarenaturesociety.org

Many visitors choose to bypass the sign-up sheets and pursue their own activities. The site is open Tuesdays-Sundays year-round, and trails like the quarter-mile boardwalk around the pond are favorites for casual visitors like walkers, joggers and birders.

Depending on the time of year, visitors will find bald eagles, beavers, ospreys, dragonflies, turtles, butterflies, all types of frogs, wild rice, and hibiscus, among other wildlife and plants.

Harrod says the DEEC sees an estimated 60,000 people annually, many of whom are curious travelers who ventured from I-95.

“It’s not only a refuge for wildlife, but a refuge for people, too,” says Harrod. “I see people come here to get away from the busyness that’s right next door in the city.”

According to the National Wildlife Refuge Association, 80 percent of Americans live in or near densely populated areas. Yet the Russell W. Peterson Urban Wildlife Refuge is one of just a handful of such nature-centered getaways in the country. The first, the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in Philadelphia, was founded in 1972, with a similar mantra: preserve, protect and educate. There’s a reason they’re so rare. Getting both of the vital ingredients required by the title—a city, obviously, and an appropriate tract of land outside the urban center—is often a lucky coincidence.

The DEEC overlooks a tidal freshwater marsh, which is an East Coast rarity due to development and infrastructure.

What makes Wilmington’s wildlife refuge especially uncommon is its marshland. While Delaware has quite a few marshes, both salt water and brackish, this is a tidal freshwater marsh. The water type allows major diversity within wetland plant life, which provides optimal conditions for wildlife.

“This is rare,” says Harrod. “Here, you’ll find a lot of great plants you wouldn’t necessarily find elsewhere. They’ve been lost through development over time.”

One example is wild rice, which by July will bloom to 10-foot-tall stalks. But decades of industrial and residential development in Delaware and along the East Coast has resulted in much of this valuable wildlife habitat being destroyed or replaced by its less biologically-diverse cousin, the salt marsh.

A Riverfront Staple

The refuge’s potential was recognized years ago, when it became a major player in the Riverfront’s decades-long renaissance.

“It’s part of the revitalization of the Riverfront,” says Harrod. “I was not here in the ‘80s, but I’m told by people who were that the Riverfront was an industrial wasteland.”

The Peterson refuge, named for the former Delaware governor recognized internationally as an activist and environmentalist, was part of the blueprints when a 1995 governor’s task force began to turn things around. The task force founded the Riverfront Development Corporation to oversee the Brandywine and Christina Rivers, and an extensive marsh restoration process began in 1998. It enabled native vegetation to flourish and promoted a wetland habitat for wildlife. Gradually, shorelines were stabilized, water channels were reverted to their historic natural patterns, and wildlife nesting platforms, and of course trail systems, were put in place. The DEEC opened in 2009.  

The DEEC opened in 2009 as part of a massive Riverfront renovation.

To date, one of the center’s biggest challenges is limited walkability because of the wet marshland. But now, the long-anticipated Jack A. Markell Trail will remedy this issue by giving pedestrians, birders, runners and cyclists more trail space. The seven-mile path will connect the Wilmington Riverfront with New Castle’s Battery Park. As of press time, the final trail installment was a bridge at the DEEC, still under construction. The trail is scheduled to open in August.

Says Pam Lilly, DelDOT deputy director of community relations: “We believe the number of trail users will be off the charts once it is opened” because the trail will support both transportation and recreational needs.

For perspective, she says trail counters on the recreational Michael Castle Trail at the C&D Canal gauge 75,000 to 100,000 hits a year. She expects an even higher use on the Markell Trail because it opens opportunities for cyclists to bike to work—and more. 

Bike Delaware Executive Director James Wilson agrees. “This is a new and permanent asset—Delaware’s biggest-ever investment in bicycle infrastructure,” Wilson says. He expects it to draw thousands of visitors and travelers to the Riverfront.

The DEEC functions as a Wilmington trailhead, with easy access to restrooms, parking, bike racks, and water fountains.

And of course, it’s the gateway to the buzz of restaurants, bars, and music venues within the growing city just beyond the cusp of the tranquil marsh.

“A lot of visitors are surprised about what they see right here,” says DEEC’s Harrod. “It’s unique that you can stand here in nature with this kind of wildlife and see the city.”

At the DEEC

Trailfest
Saturday, Sept. 22; 10 a.m.-2 p.m.

Celebrate the finished Jack A. Markell Trail this fall with Trailfest, an outdoor event presented by Delaware Greenways and Bike Delaware. With music, bike demonstrations, and activities for all ages, featured fun includes a slow-paced, family-friendly recreational ride along the trail and a 50-mile Trailfest Challenge Ride tying together the Markell Trail and the Michael Castle Trail along the C&D Canal.

And sign up for these camps:

Ages 6-8:

The Enchanted Garden
July 16-20; 9 a.m.-12 p.m.

Dig in the dirt for earthworms and plants to create your own terrarium, explore the garden for snails and butterflies, climb the waterfall rocks and play games in the garden.

Wildlife Refuge Safari
June 25-29; 8:30 a.m.-3 p.m.

Hike the new Delaware Greenways trail and be the first to search for insects, birds, fish, and mammals in the tidal marsh.

The Mad Scientist
July 23-27; 8:30 a.m.-3 p.m.

Mad scientists will unite to invent, design, and create. Every day has a new challenge campers have to science their way through.

Marsh Masterpieces
July 30-Aug. 3; 8:30 a.m.-3 p.m.

Let DEEC and the beautiful tidal wetlands be your artistic muse. Sculpt, draw, build, upcycle trash into a treasure, learn nature photography, and more.

Introduction to Pond Fishing
Aug. 6-10; 8:30 a.m.-3 p.m.

Start catching fish using nets, fish traps, and fishing rods. Learn how to safely bait a hook, cast a line, and release your first catch.

Ages 9-12:

Christina River Rangers
July 23-27; 9 a.m.-4 p.m.

Row and race with Wilmington Youth Rowing Association and explore marshes and the Christina River. Use nets, traps, and other equipment to examine the aquatic life.

Wilmington’s Wild Side
July 30-Aug. 3; 8:30 a.m.-3 p.m.

Discover Wilmington’s best kept secret – its wildlife! Go on mini-safaris each day to find, catch, and examine wild creatures and more.

DEEC Trailblazers
Aug. 6-10; 8:30 a.m.-3 p.m.

Hike, bike and paddle your way through the Russell W. Peterson Urban Wildlife Refuge and discover a remote area of the marsh that is seldom seen. Cast nets, canoe, set up trail cameras, use a spotting scope and GPS to unlock the secrets of the marsh and more.

To register, visit DelNature.org/SummerCamp or call 239-2334.

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