I've been a sporadic visitor to Varden Conservation Area over the past several years. Admittedly, most of these trips were exploratory voyages with the purpose largely serving only to learn what-trail-goes-where. Any sights and scenery I discovered were mere flukes, but on each ramble I'd usually encounter something noteworthy and so my interest in the park was always spurred on.
Coincidentally I would usually bump into Alex Stout, Park Manager for Promised Land State Park (of which Varden is a satellite facility) a day or so after each of my Varden visits. I'd share my findings and ask a few questions with him and he'd enthusiastically give me some more information I'd file in the recesses of my mind until a few months had gone by and I'd find myself once again planning out another trek to Varden. The purpose of my latest visit was to attend the third annual Varden Conservation Day, which was held on September 8, to partake in some of the special activities being offered, and hopefully to meet some new friends who can tell me more about the property.
Normally when I arrive at either of the two Varden parking lots they are empty. I usually have the place to myself. Not so this time, and that's a good thing. In fact, the lot on Tannery road where the festivities are taking place is quite packed. There are tables set up under tents and folks are mulling around the various displays. Across the lot, heading up the trail I spy local herbalist Nathaniel Whitmore leading a dozen or so people, probably in search of mushrooms or useful plants. I've known Nathaniel for several years and have with him on several treks into the woods. His was just one of the several presentations and demonstrations being held at the event.
As I picked my way through the various displays I met some of the Varden volunteers. When asked why they volunteer and what made them get involved the answers varied. One had adjacent property to the park and this was something to do to be neighborly. Others were concerned with preserving the area for the public. However, one reason was shared by a lot of the volunteers: that reason was Doc Shaffer. In a matter of minutes one of the volunteers produced the man himself. The retired southern Pennsylvania veterinarian was born in Varden and the park lands were once a part of his family homestead. When I asked him why he chose to donate the land instead of parceling it off for development I chuckled at his quick and witty response. "The word 'Development' isn't in my vocabulary," he stated. He went on to explain that while he had moved from Varden in 1951, he frequently visited his family and kept the property for many years. Sharing the land and keeping it so others might enjoy it were of great concern to Dr. Shaffer, so a few years ago he made inquiries with several government and non-profit land management organizations about what it would take to donate the property and keep it open to the public. After investigating several options, the one devised by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources was the most appealing to him and shortly thereafter the plan was set in motion.
Page 2 of 2 - Doc Shaffer and I wound down our talk as the crowd began to gather under the pavilion for the upcoming presentation. A number of boxes, pet carriers actually, in several sizes were covered and arranged on the tables. Bill Streeter, from the Delaware Valley Raptor Center in Milford, was preparing to show off some of his feathered friends. This was Bill's first visit to Varden. "I thought it was a private sanctuary," he admitted. Indeed, as a newer addition to the State Park System and not carrying a moniker that easily identifies it as a public area, one can easily understand his confusion. By DCNR's definition, the Conservation Area designation is "…for land donated to the Bureau of State Parks and managed for the purposes of preserving open space, conserving natural resources, and providing opportunities for passive, non-motorized low-density outdoor activities and environmental education activities." They have few facilities and no open roads. Development is minimal and they are intended to be used as outdoor classrooms. Bill's class was about to begin.
The boxes on the table contained an array of birds of prey. They seemed to get larger as Bill produced bird after bird staring with a tiny American Kestrel, then a Peregrine Falcon, next a Red Tailed Hawk, and then a Great Horned Owl. He showed off a small Saw-whet Owl before producing a large Golden Eagle. He shared the tails of how the birds came to the center and what injured them so much that they were unable to return to the wild. While some of the stories were sad, they were inspiring as well. These birds, by-and-large, were left for dead or, in some cases, purposefully attacked by humans, but now are cared for in exchange for their service as educators. With each bird, Bill not only told their individual stories, but elaborated on the various species going into great detail about their habitat and characteristics. He concluded by telling about the history and mission of the Raptor Center and plugged their upcoming eagle cruise up Alaska's Inside Passage which is scheduled for 2013.
As the raptor presentation concluded, a bluegrass band took the stage and soon fiddle sounds filled the air. I partook in some homemade ice cream, picked up some baked goods, and browsed through the remaining displays I had not yet seen. I couldn't stay for the entire event, but my two hours there were well spent. Near future visits to Varden will most likely be a bit quieter, but the next time I head into the woods there, I will undoubtedly take with me memories from this day.