Inside The Serious Business Of Recreation In Walker County.
For community volunteer Jenny Brown Short, two moments stand-out as formative in her decision to champion Walker County’s outdoor recreational resources. “Shortly after I moved back to Jasper, Paul Kennedy shared his vision that Walker County Lake could some day become another Oak Mountain State Park. Something about that really spoke to me.”
The second occurred while she was attending the civic-improvement seminar / workshop, Your Town Alabama. “One of the speakers pointed-out something about improving recreational opportunities for your community that really struck me: The cost to build a constructed project from the ground up is $40 for every dollar it costs to take advantage of the natural resources you already have.
An Untapped Treasure
“We have so many beautiful areas in Walker County — and when I was growing up in Jasper, we never used them. After I took Jim Felder of the Alabama Scenic Trail (the nation’s largest system of publicly-accessible streams & rivers) on a tour of Walker County, he told me, ‘I need to bring my entire board back here.’”
The Alabama Scenic Trail is what’s known, in strictly technical terms, as A Really Big Deal. It’s something an honor for a county to be considered for a single site on the Trail’s system. “After Jim visited,” Jenny continues, “we proposed four sites in Walker County for inclusion on the Trail. They signed-off on all four, adding 57.6 miles of bluewater trails to their system.
A True Community Effort
“They couldn’t believe how far ahead of other communities we were in our planning. We had written plans detailing float times, level of difficulty and access points. Once they signed-off on our four sites, they led us through the entire process of preparing the sites.”
By “us,” Jenny’s referring to the small army of volunteers working with her to maximize Walker County’s recreational opportunities—particularly at Walker County Lake. “We have nearly 30 people giving generously of their time in this effort. Everyone from engineers, extension agents, foresters and financial experts to outdoor enthusiasts and housewives.”
Lake Improvements And Developments
The progress being made on Walker County Lake (the state’s second largest public fishing lake) has been impressive. “We’ve been working with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to complete the first phase of our plan. We are building a 4.5 mile hiking trail around the lake and will identify locations for Primitive Campsites. We’ve developed better access points and off-road parking.
Family Friendly. And Accessible.
Phase One also contains an interactive educational component for kids and families. “All around the lake,” Jenny says, “we plan to set-up kiosks that identify plants. We will also offer other learning opportunities for kids — like how to measure longitude and latitude, and how to use a compass.
Next steps for the lake include the development of a public archery park, and creating access for the disabled. The lake is also a popular rendezvous point for road biking with — several loops identified from this staging area.
“Everything we’ve done,” Jenny concludes, “has been to create a great place for families to go. And while we’ve certainly done a lot to enhance the angling experience, you don’t have to be a fisher to enjoy it. To me, Walker County lake is our Crown Jewel — and so many people have had a hand in making it what it is today.”
Another Champion For The Cause
Kennedy (President of the Walker Area Community Foundation) shares Jenny’s unbridled enthusiasm for Walker County’s natural resources — for two reasons: “First, it’s my community and I love it. And second, it’s the perfect way to promote our goal of producing better health outcomes for Walker County.”
Paul points to a common comment he heard during the community meetings held across Walker County in 2014. “Over and over, people complained that they didn’t have anywhere to go on weekends. So we did a complete inventory of all the places you can go. For starters, every city in Walker County has public park land — 1500 acres in Jasper alone. Walker County Lake has the only site for 50 miles on the Alabama Birding Trail. And we have so many things other you can do — in the woods, on the water or at the ballpark.
Success Is Second Nature.
“We have an outstanding record when it comes to success in elite competition. Take our local road-biking group (Blackwater Cyclers) that routinely conducts century rides (100 miles in a day). We’re talking about a group of individuals who rival cycling groups from any big city. In the more
traditional sports, we’ve long had travel teams in baseball, softball and volleyball. Our archery program, which is now in a number of county and city schools, has produced a state champion (a local 12-year-old girl) — and we’ve had county people compete regional and national archery tournaments.”
Then there’s Walker County’s record in tennis, which has produced five state championships and, Paul notes, “the only National High School Coach of the Year from Alabama in any sport.
“We now have the potential to create an exceptional system of hiking trails,” Paul continues, “which would extend all the way from downtown Sumiton to the Sipsey Wilderness. The land is already there — old road beds, rail beds and game paths — and we’re working-out the logistics with the landowners for access. That’s an effort being led by Friends of Sipsey Trail, under the direction of Martha Salomaa,” who, it’s worth mentioning, is one-half of a championship Wife Carrying team (a no-kidding-real-life competitive sport popular in her husband’s native Finland).
The Real Key To Success
Kennedy and Short both credit the extraordinary growth of the county’s outdoor recreational program to an active and ongoing public / private partnership. With Walker County Lake, Jenny notes, “We’ve received in-kind donations and grant funding totaling nearly $100,000. The Walker County Commission led the effort to have the area paved for easier car access. And there’s been a tremendous buy-in from the both the public and private sides of our community. To me, a healthy public / private partnership is how you get great things done in this country today.”
“Having lived in so many other cities before returning to Jasper, I’ve seen how powerful the outdoors can be as a driver for the economy and the culture of an area. I also feel like I have the privilege of seeing Walker County through a fresh set of lenses.” It’s clear that, like so many other people who’ve contributed so tirelessly to the area’s growth, Jenny likes what she sees.
Photos by Al Blanton