It’s tough to be an urban waterway. Beargrass Creek is known for waste disposal, sewage overflows and islands of trash. But a concerted group of citizen scientists at Male High School have crafted a pair of compendiums to share the ecological bounty of Louisville’s longest urban stream.
Male’s Advanced Ecology Creek Class recently completed its second field guide cataloging tree species found along Beargrass Creek, following the success of their guide to the birds of the creek.
“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,” students wrote in the forward of their latest work.
In many ways, the history of Beargrass Creek is a reflection of the city’s attitudes toward environmental protection. In the 19th century, butchers and stockyards tossed animal remains in it, others added their own waste, and in time, the smell and disease so overwhelmed downtown that the city rerouted the creek, according to the students’ guide.
Today, Beargrass Creek is the cleanest it has been in decades. There are still problems with runoff and sewage, but there’s progress too: Louisville’s Metropolitan Sewer District will soon use a waterway protection tunnel designed to prevent overflows into the creek.
Paddling enthusiast and local environmental educator David Wicks teamed up with environmental science teacher Angela Page and the students of her class to complete the field guides.
Wicks has kayaked and canoed the creek for the past 45 years. In that time, he’s seen an “explosion” of biodiversity. From bald eagles to beavers, he said the creek is now home to a vast ecology. Wicks serves on the board of River City Paddle Sports promoting clean water on the creek and offering canoe trips to schools in exchange for environmental projects.
“We do believe that having people be able to identify three or four, five common species, it almost develops like a friendship. You feel more comfortable, and you feel more protective of the area,” he said.
“The Trees of Beargrass Creek” details more than a dozen tree species found along the banks of the stream, including pin oaks, sugar maples, hickories and pawpaws. Each listing includes detailed descriptions of leaves, fruits and flowers written by the students themselves.
There’s also a section on invasive species that grow along the river including honeysuckle, white mulberry and the Callery pear tree.
The students say they’ve learned a lot from taking a look in their own backyards. Caleb Christerson said the class taught him there’s a lot of things to fix in the world. Bryan Abalos said the class empowered him to learn about the “world around us.”
“At the beginning of the year, I had a standard view of the environment, but now as my journey in creek class is coming to a close, I now have a new outlook on the environment, said student Clayton Hord. “I’ve learned that one individual’s action can help improve as well as help hurt the environment.”
Several students had kind words for Page, their teacher, whom they credit with helping them take an interest in their natural environment. One student even said the class inspired them to major in environmental science.
Page said it’s important that students have a curriculum based in their own backyards.
“A lot of kids have grown an appreciation for Beargrass Creek and the things that live around there,” she said. “And a lot of them have been moved to action with this class, to help protect it.
The 20-student class has already printed around 650 copies of the trees of Beargrass Creek. 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.