Hunter's Creek Park
(This 763rd Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on November 13, 2005.)
Hunter's Creek Park is one of Erie County's undeveloped or, as now re-titled, conservation preserves. This 740-acre property is located about three miles east of the Village of East Aurora. To the northeast it abuts the Land Conservancy's 141-acre Kenneglen sanctuary. Together the two areas protect more than 1 1/3 square miles of rapidly maturing forest.
The Hunter's Creek Park entrance is on Centerline Road where a scout-constructed kiosk provides a trail map. Park visitors should copy or memorize this map before hiking this area as it would be very easy to get lost among the spiderweb of trails.
This wasn't a problem for me, however, as I was escorted through the park in late October by John Sly, my candidate for nature hike leader of the year.
John has known this area since he visited it as a youngster with his family. Then the area was mostly farmland, but in the 1960s farsighted county leaders saw the need for parklands. Under state oversight they acquired areas like this to set aside. To make up the Hunter's Creek property, thirteen parcels of land were taken under eminent domain, a process by which government expropriates land for specified projects. In this case, thankfully, no court battles resulted as amicable financial agreements were reached with all of the property owners.
Although we found signs of former farming -- leftover fencing materials, a few fruit trees now dropping apples for local deer and piles of stones removed from fields -- this must always have been low grade agricultural property. Recently fallen trees displaying only inches-deep root systems suggested that in many places plow blades would have scraped the surface of base rock.
There were other impediments to farming. The soil itself is low-quality glacial till. And the typography is unfavorable to agriculture: the creek and its tributaries have carved steep-sided gullies into the glacier-formed moraines. Those early farmers might have been glad to sell out to end their backbreaking labor trying to work this unforgiving land.
John has been able to follow the progress of this park since the 1960s from open fields through brush and small trees until now larger trees have taken over and the forest is maturing. In the gorges still older trees remain and John hopes to have them aged by coring. The random character of the good mix of tree species is only marred in a few places by pine plantations set out by well meaning boy scouts. They planted the saplings close together in lines according to older forestry dictates.
On the day of our hike the forest was in full splendor. We walked on golden paths, the colorful leaves that had fallen not yet acid-stained to deeper brown. I can identify some trees by their leaves but only a few by their bark. John, on the other hand, knows them all, with or without leaves. He pointed out red and sugar maples, basswood, black locust, cherry, bitternut hickory, ironwood, beech, aspen, yellow birch, white ash, cucumber tree, spruce, white pine and hemlock. In a lowland area he found willows and even a long-dead elm. Shrubs too: he displayed those strange yellow witchhazel blossoms and we smelled that pleasant lemony scent of a broken spicebush twig. Raspberry bushes were widespread.
So far few wildflowers have returned to this area but we did find dead leek blossoms and similar snakeroot flowers.
Only a chimney remains of the cabin constructed by Albert Hubbard's son Sandy over 40 years ago. John hopes to see it incorporated into an educational instructional area as proposed in the Erie County Parks Master Plan. He's also proud of the park support among mountain bike and horseback riders, joggers and dog walkers. Many of them have helped with trail construction and maintenance.
It is clear that John Sly is deeply invested in this property. Having read about the possibility of Erie County privatizing its parklands, he is
thankful that Hunter's Creek is protected because of state involvement with the original purchase. How different county leaders who purchased this property were from those ready to sell off this valuable heritage today.
I rate Hunter's Creek Park among the best hiking areas in Erie County.-- Gerry Rising