It’s hard to be an urban waterway. Beargrass Creek is known for waste treatment, sewage overflows and waste islands. But a concerted group of citizen scientists at Male High School have put together a pair of compendiums to share the ecological richness of Louisville’s longest urban waterway.
Male’s Advanced Ecology Creek class recently completed their second field guide listing the tree species found along Beargrass Creek, following the success of their Creek Bird Guide.
“Our research has opened our eyes to the importance of trees on the banks of the Beargrass Creek watershed, and we hope this field guide will do the same for you,” the students wrote in the foreword to their last job.
In many ways, the history of Beargrass Creek is a reflection of the town’s attitude towards environmental protection. In the 19th century, butchers and stockyards dumped animal remains there, others added their own waste, and over time the smell and disease so overwhelmed the downtown area that the city diverted the creek, according to the student guide.
Today, Beargrass Creek is the cleanest in decades. There are still runoff and sewer issues, but there’s also progress: Louisville’s Metropolitan Sewer District will soon be using a waterway protection tunnel designed to prevent overflow into the stream.
David Wicks, boating enthusiast and local environmental educator, teamed up with environmental science teacher Angela Page and students in her class to complete the field guides.
Wicks has been kayaking and canoeing the creek for the past 45 years. During this time, he saw an “explosion” of biodiversity. From bald eagles to beavers, he said the creek is now home to a vast ecology. Wicks sits on the board of River City Paddle Sports to promote clean water on the creek and provide canoe trips to schools in exchange for environmental projects.
“We think that people being able to identify three or four, five common species, it develops almost like a friendship. You feel more comfortable and you feel more protective of the area,” said he declared.
“The Trees of Beargrass Creek” details more than a dozen species of trees found along the banks of the creek, including live oaks, sugar maples, hickories, and papayas. Each list includes detailed descriptions of the leaves, fruits and flowers written by the students themselves.
There is also a section on invasive species that grow along the river, including honeysuckle, white mulberry and callery pear.
The students say they learned a lot by looking in their own backyards. Caleb Christerson said the class taught him there was a lot to fix in the world. Bryan Abalos said the course allowed him to learn more about “the world around us”.
“At the start of the year, I had a standard view of the environment, but now that my creek course journey is coming to an end, I now have a new view of the environment,” the student said. Clayton Hord. “I learned that one individual’s action can help improve and harm the environment.”
Several students had kind words for Page, their teacher, whom they credit with helping them learn about their natural environment. One student even said the course inspired him to major in environmental science.
Page said it’s important for students to have a curriculum based on their own backyard.
“A lot of kids have come to appreciate Beargrass Creek and the things that live there,” she said. “And many of them have been moved into action with this class, to help protect it.
The class of 20 students has already printed about 650 copies of Beargrass Creek trees. Wicks said they plan to share copies with Waterfront Botanical Gardens, the Louisville Audubon Society, Waterfront Park and others.
Support for this story was provided in part by the Jewish Heritage Fund.