CORNELIUS – Ben Austin jokes that the hardest part of his Eagle Scout project was getting up early every Saturday morning for six weeks, but he and about 12 buddies in Troop 82 have started something that thousands of Cornelius residents will enjoy for years to come.
Every Saturday in October, and wrapping up on Nov. 6, the Scouts cut the first section of a woodland trail that will eventually lead from the oval at the entrance to Robbins Park, all the way to McDowell Creek and the greenway that connects to Birkdale Village. The Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Department has leased the Robbins Park land to the town, and the McDowell Greenway is part of the county’s greenway system spanning Cornelius and Huntersville.
The trail serves as one of the final steps Austin, who turns 18 in December, needs to attain the highest rank in Scouting and the first step Troy Fitzsimmons, parks superintendent for the Cornelius Parks, Arts, Recreation and Culture Department, needs to get a trail system installed.
Phillip Piraino, another member of Troop 82, already has completed his Eagle Scout application to start the trail at the oval driveway and go east into the pines and hardwoods. His trail will connect with Austin’s at a small pond hidden in the middle of the woods. Piraino and his work crews will add a trail around the small pond, Fitzsimmons said.
Alan Simonini, another Scout in Troop 82, has talked to Austin about building the third section of trail, which would connect to McDowell Creek, for his Eagle Scout project next summer. John Carpenter serves as Troop 82’s scoutmaster.
Fitzsimmons is looking forward to hearing from him and completing the first east-west trail tying the 107-acre Robbins Park and 19-acre Westmoreland Athletic Complex to the McDowell Creek Greenway.
The former Robbins farmstead is located at southeast of the intersection of Westmoreland Road and West Catawba Avenue.
Fitzsimmons has worked with other Boy Scouts in the area, designing worthy Eagle Scout projects that also create a permanent benefit for the community. When Austin approached Fitzsimmons for an idea, “he showed me the whole plan (for Robbins Park), and I thought it was pretty cool that it would connect with other trails and the greenway, all the way to Birkdale,” the Hopewell High School senior said.
Fitzsimmons and Austin walked the path his trail would take. Austin tied orange ribbons along the way and recruited his work crews, who brought their own swing blades, shovels and some adults with chain saws. The Scouts hacked through brambles, cut or moved a number of trees that were blocking the trail path and even removed some old barbed-wire fencing.
But when Austin and Fitzsimmons led town Paul Herbert, director of the Parks, Arts, Recreation and Culture Department in Cornelius, and a reporter on a tour of the trail last week, the trail looked as if it had been there many years, following the Scouts’ leave-no-trace camping mantra. Austin has marked trees all along the trail with red dots of spray paint, so walkers don’t take a wrong turn.
The Scouts took care to fill in any holes they made digging out brambles or small trees, leveling the trail. Fitzsimmons asked the Scouts to put any debris in small heaps to the side of the trail to provide habitats for small animals.
The Scouts also built and installed five houses along the trail, but many visitors may walk the trail without noticing. Each of the five bat houses has a shingle roof and sits about 25 feet off the ground. The Scouts needed a tall ladder to reach that height, and Fitzsimmons said he expects bats will move in by the spring.
Austin’s crew contributed 125 to 135 hours altogether, he said, and some Scouts, like brothers Nick and Cole Beardslee, worked almost every Saturday.
Fitzsimmons wanted the trail left as natural as possible as an alternative to other area trails, which are paved with asphalt. A runner himself, Fitzsimmons said he believe the park will become a magnet for runners and cross-country cyclists once the trail network develops.
Austin, the son of Mike and Lori Austin, of Cornelius, hopes to major in nuclear engineering or physics, and he has applied to N.C. State University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of South Carolina and Georgia Institute of Technology.
In the next four years, when he returns from a visit from the college he chooses, he should find more and more people enjoying the trail he blazed.