This piece was submitted by Dale Fox of Tricounty Rails to Trails.

Building rail-trails is a challenging task. A local non-profit board must be established to develop and maintain the trail. Partnerships with local, state, and federal funding entities must be pursued. It is not unusual to take many years, sometimes decades, to establish a new rail-trail. And then arises the never-ending challenge to maintain what has taken so much money and sweat equity to create. Trail maintenance—it is an absolute necessity, yet nearly every trail group is challenged to find the funds to keep their trail in tip-top shape. Crushed limestone slithers away, asphalt cracks, weeds invade with a vengeance. Trees fall, washouts abound, culverts clog. What’s a trail group to do?

Take a Walk on the Wild Side was an ingenious part of the answer for Tricounty Rails to Trails, a regional Pennsylvania non-profit that maintains the Clarion-Little Toby Rail Trail in Elk and Jefferson counties. Dale Fox, a founding director of the trail in 1992 and current president, was inspired by special education students in her local school district to develop a youth event that would inspire them to become future conservationists and trail builders.

“All children today (and adults) are obsessed with technology and gadgets, and rarely take the time to experience the magic of our “real natural world,” commented Ms. Fox. “The idea came to me in 2018 to take a stab at a youth-oriented nature event on the trail. It was an idea whose time had come!” The concept proved so successful in its first year, the trail group greatly expanded its second year on June 8th, 2018.

Walk on the Wild Side consists of three basic elements. First, youth and their families visit hands-on education stands manned by volunteers from a variety of local, state, and federal agencies. The group’s recent event in June was fortunate to have 12 different presenting agencies that did a fabulous job fascinating youth with their presentations focused on using their five senses. Groups represented included the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Allegheny National Forest, Pennsylvania Game Commission, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, Pennsylvania Fish Commission, and many local wildlife associations. The agencies were enthusiastic to have an opportunity to reach youth and they did a fantastic job!

The second part of the event is the Flora and Fauna Scavenger Hunt on the rail-trail. Youth and their families hike out and mark chosen species they spot on their hunt paper, which has pictures of mammals, birds, insects, amphibians, trees, flowers, invasives, etc.  The children’s’ determination to discover every single species on the sheet was remarkable. Children as young as three years old were out searching! Deer, frogs, toads, bats, snakes, and chipmunks along with many species of trees and plants made a complimentary appearance.

The grand finale of the event is the youth nature raffle. Thanks to hundreds of donations through donation stations in area businesses, children participated in an exciting raffle which featured 91 quality nature-themed items ranging from bicycles, bird houses and feeders, puzzles and games, art projects, science experiments, and lots of adorable stuffed animals. The excitement was at a fever pitch! No child left empty handed thanks to two swimming pools filled with small items for grab bags.

Walk on the Wild Side is a nature trifecta. It inspires and educates our youth—the conservationists and trail enthusiasts of the future. They stop looking at their phones except to snap photos of the species they sight. And the trail group walked back down the trail with $4,000 in their pockets for trail maintenance—thanks to nearly 40 local sponsors.

Tricounty Rails to Trails is willing to share their plans and materials with other trail groups to create their own Walk on the Wild Side events, including use of the name. For more information, contact [email protected].