Enjoy the Ashland Floodplain Trail at Ashland Nature Center in Hockessin, Delaware with the help of our Audio Tour. Follow along with our Trail Guide.
Enjoy the Ashland Floodplain Trail at Ashland Nature Center in Hockessin, Delaware with the help of our Audio Tour. Follow along with our Trail Guide.Printable Booklet | Audio Tour
Ashland Floodplain Trail Guide Printable Booklet
Ashland Floodplain Trail Guide Audio Tour
Audio Tour Text
Hello, I’m Kate Engleman, a Girl Scout in Troop 4923, and your host for today. I created this audio trail guide as a part of my Gold Award project, in collaboration with the Ashland Nature Center. Today we will be exploring the Floodplain Trail.
During your hike, I will guide you through the sights and sounds of the trail, and hope to teach you a little bit about the features and purpose of a floodplain.
Ashland’s Floodplain Trail follows the Red Clay Creek upstream through woodlands and fields before it loops back around, ending at the Visitor’s Center.
To hike this trail, simply follow the 24 blue numbered markers. I will be with you along the way, telling you about a different aspect of the floodplain at each marker. You will hear about the history of the area, the plants and animals that call the floodplain home, and why it is important for humans to protect the creek and keep the floodplain in its natural state.
Go past the Visitor Center and look for blue arrows to lead you down the steps to Marker 1.
Stop and listen to the rush of the Red Clay Creek as it flows in front of you, moving hundreds of thousands of gallons of water through this valley every hour.
The creek begins as only trickles of water from groundwater springs, north of Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. Small streams and additional groundwater join in as the creek moves through Pennsylvania and into Delaware. The Red Clay passes us here and flows generally southeast until it joins the White Clay Creek. Then, it joins the Christina River, the Delaware River, and, in the end, empties out into the Atlantic Ocean at Cape Henlopen!
On most days of the year, water in the Red Clay Creek is shallow enough for you to wade through without much danger. But during floods, the water rises over the banks and spreads out in a broad area called the floodplain. This floodplain stretches from the hill behind you all the way to the trees on the other side of the meadow across the creek. When severe floods hit, the water here can rise more than 8 feet above where you’re standing!
The floodplain plays a critical environmental role, slowing down the flow of flood water and allowing it to safely soak into the ground.
As you walk this trail, watch out for stinging nettle, an herbaceous plant which thrives in the moist floodplain. The leaves and stems of stinging nettle are covered with needle-like hairs that can produce an unpleasant or painful sting when touched.
But, it’s not all bad! Stinging nettle is not often credited for its many beneficial properties. Historically, indigenous people from the Coast Salish, Winnebago, Omaha, and Subarctic tribes used stinging nettle medicinally for conditions like arthritis. The sting of the nettle has a beneficial effect on the human body, enhancing blood circulation and lowering inflammation.
However, if you want to take the sting away, jewelweed, another common, herbaceous plant on the floodplain can help. Its hollow, tube-like stems contain a juice which can be used to relieve the sting of nettle when crushed. Look for both plants as you continue your walk across the floodplain.
The kinds of trees that grow on the floodplain are different from those on the hills and uplands, because of the wetter soil conditions here. Black willow, for example, often grows right at the stream edge, and is not bothered by flooding or siltation. Its roots help prevent the erosion of stream banks by holding the soil in place. You can recognize black willow by its dark, furrowed bark and its long, slender leaves. Look for black willow in the distance as you continue your hike.
Other trees usually abundant on the floodplain include the ashleaf maple, sycamore, and green ash, though unfortunately, most ash trees have been killed off by the invasive Emerald Ash Borer. Black cherry, sassafras, hawthorn, red maple, and silver maple also grow here, but less commonly.
Pigs and other farm animals were once kept in a fenced area here when this land was used as a farm. When the farm was abandoned, the old animal pens became gradually overgrown by wild plants in a process called natural succession.
Annual plants, like grasses, establish themselves first, followed by wildflowers and other perennial plants for a few years. Eventually, woody plants such as berry briars, shrubs, and young trees took root and began to grow. With plenty of large trees now present here, this area is well on its way to developing into a mature floodplain forest. Look for remnants of the old wire farm fence, largely hidden by vegetation, as you continue on your walk.
From the wooden bridge across Wildflower Brook, you can see where this small stream flows into the Red Clay Creek. Wildflower Brook is one of the dozens of tributary streams that empty into the Red Clay as it flows through Pennsylvania and Delaware. Look for animal footprints in the mud and sand along the stream edge. White-tailed Deer, Raccoons, Virginia Opossum, and many kinds of birds visit the stream each day to drink or search for food.
On your way to Marker 6, look for a bird box at the edge of the trail, placed here by the Delaware Nature Society for our feathered friends to nest in.
All of the hills you can see from here are part of the Red Clay Creek watershed, a 54-square mile area which extends north into Pennsylvania and includes all of the land that drains into the Red Clay Creek. The ecology of the watershed and the creek are interrelated so that anything that affects the watershed will ultimately affect the creek.
You can take action to help your own watershed in a variety of ways. First, consider exploring a local stream or creek by wading, swimming, canoeing, or kayaking. You might be surprised at how much you can learn about the water and the factors that influence it all while having fun!
At home, try to conserve water as best you can, and be sure to properly dispose of all chemicals to prevent them from accumulating in our rivers and oceans. You can also plant a rain garden, which acts as your very own mini floodplain by helping excess water soak into the ground.
Stop for a moment and look at the unkempt tangle of young trees, shrubs, brambles, and vines in this area. You may prefer the look of a mowed lawn to this tangle of brush and “weeds,” but most animals prefer the unmowed thicket because of the excellent protection it provides.
The Eastern Cottontail rabbit uses both mowed and unmowed areas, nibbling cautiously at the green grass, clover, and other herbaceous plants for its food, but bounding away to the safety of the dense thicket at the first sign of danger. Groundhogs make use of both areas as well, and also escape to the safety of underground burrows. Additionally, many birds build nests in the thicket and eat the berries and seeds it provides. Stop and listen. Can you hear the calls of the Northern Mockingbird, Gray Catbird, Northern Cardinal, and Carolina Wren?
In your own yard, consider leaving some areas natural and unmowed. You may even get some new animal visitors, who will surely appreciate your efforts!
Large rocks, called rip rap, were placed here along the banks of the creek to help minimize erosion and prevent the creek from meandering. These particular rocks were brought from the site of the former Wanamaker department store on Augustine Cutoff, which is now the Incyte Headquarters. These rocks were blasted out of the hillside during construction. Look for cylindrical holes in the rocks that were once drilled to hold dynamite.
As you walk on, listen for the dry, rattle-like call of the Belted Kingfisher. It sounds like this:
The Belted Kingfisher nests in holes in the stream bank and perches on branches above the creek, looking for fish to catch. It is often seen and heard here.
Look at the big bend in the tributary stream in front of you. This tributary is called Birch Run, and like all other natural streams, it is slowly but surely changing its course.
Long ago, Birch Run was almost straight here, but it bends a little more every day thanks to erosion and deposition.
Eventually, these bends will run into each other, and the water will again take the straighter, more direct path.
The bends left behind by the new path of the stream will become their own bodies of water, called oxbow lakes.
If you were standing here during a major flood, you just might be swept away in a torrent of water! When the creek floods, water flows through the broad floodplain from Sharpless Road across the floodplain on the other side of the creek, towards Barley Mill Road and the Ashland Covered Bridge.
The destructive aspects of flooding are largely the result of humankind’s careless habit of building on the floodplains, as well as overdevelopment of the watershed as a whole.
Concrete, asphalt, and other human made materials do not absorb water like the soil does, so most of the rainwater falling on these impervious surfaces runs off quickly into the streams and contributes to destructive flooding and erosion.
Severe flooding along the Red Clay Creek in recent years is quite likely a result of further development and increased areas of impervious surfaces upstream from here. Floods will only continue to become more severe in coming years unless something is done about this.
Visible from this marker are hundreds of trees that were planted in efforts to help establish a forested, or “riparian” buffer along the Red Clay Creek. A“riparian buffer” is a corridor of vegetation along the bank of a stream, river, or other natural waterway. Many of the younger trees planted here have cages around them to protect them from hungry White-tailed deer!
Lining the creek with vegetation is beneficial in reducing flood damage, preventing breakdown and loss of soil, preventing pollutants from entering the water, maintaining cool water temperature, improving water quality, and providing a forested habitat for a variety of animals.
See that triangular, stone structure in the creek? This structure is called a weir, and was used by Native Americans like the Lenni Lenape of this area for fishing. Fish were guided into the opening at the base of the weir, and would quickly become stuck where the point of the triangle narrows in this ingenious design.
After the fish were caught from the weir by spear or net, they were either eaten fresh, or would be smoked or dried and stored for the winter months.
This specific weir gets reconstructed by eager summer campers each year, after it is sometimes washed away by high water!
The sycamore and tulip poplar are two of the most massive trees on the East Coast. Sycamores pretty much only grow along stream banks and in low lying areas. They can be identified by the camouflage-like bark they have, as their old brown bark peels off to show the lighter white bark underneath. Sycamores also have broad, simple leaves and fluffy seed clusters that drop from the trees in the spring.
You may also be able to hear the sounds of the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and the Warbling Vireo, two songbirds that like to nest in floodplain trees like the sycamore.
As you continue, you will arrive at a fork in the path. Go right to take a short spur trail that follows the creek upstream to view the Sharpless Road bridge over the Red Clay Creek at Marker 14. Or, go to the left to skip Marker 14 and go straight to Marker 15.
This dam on the Red Clay Creek was built out of stone in the early 1700s, and was later modernized with concrete. You may also be able to see a small portion of the Wilmington and Western railroad, as well as part of the old millrace from this marker.
The millrace, which is a channel built to turn a water wheel, ran nearby to operate a flour mill built by John Gregg at Ashland. John Gregg was one of the first European settlers in the Hockessin area, and purchased his land from the William Penn estate. A portion of the millrace still exists today as a long, skinny pond. This pond is used by the Delaware Nature Society to teach children and adults about the pond ecosystem.
When you are done viewing these features, go back the way you came and go left at the fork to get to Marker 15.
This broad, open area once supported a beautiful, ecologically diverse, wildflower meadow. But, after a severe flood deposited several feet of sand and gravel here, the meadow plants and fertile soil they depended on were buried.
Later floods brought more debris and also seeds from plants that were growing upstream, including several species of invasive plants. These invasive species, such as Japanese hop, thrive in disturbed areas like this and have quickly overgrown the area.
Invasive plants crowd out native ones, and generally do not provide the best food or shelter for native animal species, either.
On a positive note, the deposition of sand and gravel also allowed for the creation of an archaeology dig that can be seen from this marker. Sift through the sand and see what you can find in the dig!
Did you know that a stream once flowed through this low, swampy area? The black willows in the area prove this because these trees only establish themselves alongside streams.
Another plant growing near the willows is the button-bush, which probably took root when the stream flowed here. This semi-aquatic shrub gets its name from its circular, button-shaped flowers. During times of excessive rainfall a small stream still flows through this low area.
Head on down the path to hear more about Birch Run at the next marker.
Look closely at the rocks in Birch Run. Believe it or not, the pieces of rock you see are fragments of metamorphic rocks that formed more than 400 million years ago in the core of an ancient mountain range! Those mountains were as high as the Rockies are today!
Over millions of years those mountains were gradually worn away to the gentle rolling hills that we see around Ashland today. Rain, ice, and plant roots attacked the rocks, steadily breaking them down and leaving only fragments behind to prove their existence. The small pieces moved downhill overtime, partially in rainwater runoff, and were eventually picked up in streams such as Birch Run.
Once in a stream, rock pieces are tumbled and thrown into each other, grinding them down and breaking them into even smaller particles of gravel, sand, silt, and clay. The particles are carried downstream and eventually deposited where the water’s current slows. Some smaller grains of sand are carried all the way to the ocean where they deposit to form beaches.
This old field contains many of the plants that once populated the area near Marker 15, including goldenrod, aster, common milkweed, and poison hemlock.
Butterflies, moths, leafhoppers, grasshoppers, crickets, cicadas, true bugs, and beetles are some of the many insects you can find in abundance in the old field during the spring, summer, and fall. After laying eggs in the summer or fall, most adult insects die, though some insects survive the winter by burying into the ground or tree bark where it is warmer. A few insects like the monarch butterfly or the green darner dragonfly fly South to warmer land for the winter to escape freezing temperatures. There are at least a thousand different species of insects in this field. Stop and listen. How many can you hear?
Have you ever heard of forest bathing? Don’t worry – it has nothing to do with actually taking a bath in the forest! Instead, forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku, refers to the Japanese art and science of simply spending time in the forest in a relaxing, restorative way. Forest bathing has been studied for its numerous health benefits, including lowering blood pressure and stress, while also improving mood, energy, and sleep!
So, whether you knew it or not, you have actually been forest bathing this whole time!
Among the spice bush on the uphill side of the trail is American hazelnut. This native shrub can be identified by its ridged, heart-shaped leaves, and its nuts, which are similar to acorns. Some birds and smaller mammals nest in the tree, while other birds, deer, and squirrels eat the nuts for sustenance.
Humans have historically eaten the nuts for sustenance, too! Hazelnut was also historically used for basket weaving and medicinal purposes by several Native American tribes. The Iroquois even used hazelnut in a mosquito repellent mixture!
About 10 yards upstream from the foot bridge over Wildflower Brook, you can access the stream edge to explore for small stream animals.
Look for water striders, a type of insect that can walk on the water’s surface thanks to surface tension. You may also see the nymphs of other kinds of insects, along with beetles, snails, crayfish, stream salamanders, and small fish.
The high diversity of aquatic organisms found in Wildflower Brook, along with the presence of stonefly and mayfly nymphs, indicates excellent water quality. This is likely due to the fact that the small watershed of Wildflower Brook consists mostly of land managed by the Delaware Nature Society, so it receives no significant input of pollutants.
In contrast, close inspection of the Red Clay Creek reveals that it is not as healthy as it may appear from a distance. A low diversity of aquatic organisms, along with the presence of numerous pollution-tolerant aquatic insects, indicates poor water quality.
Unlike Wildflower Brook, the Red Clay Creek has a large watershed with a wide variety of land uses. Pollution affecting the Red Clay Creek includes runoff of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, as well as oils, road salts, and industrial waste.
Please be mindful of what you use in your garden, on your lawn, and on your driveway. It will end up in the creek!
As you leave the creek, turn right and head uphill to find Marker 22.
The large tree by the marker is a black walnut, planted in 1976 as part of a bicentennial project to restore this once-abundant native species. Look for other walnuts, including younger, “second generation” walnut trees, as you walk up the hill.
Black walnut tree roots, leaves, and nut husks produce a chemical that is toxic to some other plants, so plants that are sensitive to the toxin will not grow near black walnut trees.
Many Native American nations used black walnut and its bark for medicinal purposes, as well as to make brown and black dyes. Black Walnut sap can also be boiled down to make a syrup.
Use caution if you pick any walnuts up, as they can easily stain hands and clothing!
Can you see any differences between the vegetation growing on these hillsides and that on the floodplain you left behind? Although many of the same herbaceous plants grow in both locations, others, like jewelweed and stinging nettle, are not present here because the soil is too dry.
You’re almost to the end now! As you continue on the path towards the final marker, you will see remnants of an old barn that once stood where Ashland does now, including an old stone wall and silo. Luckily, the farmer who chose this site recognized that buildings should not be placed in the floodplain, so he built them above! This principle is equally valid today, but is not always followed in modern construction!
You made it to the last marker! This is the end of the Floodplain Trail. On your walk, you have observed a variety of floodplain habitats.
You have walked through fields, thickets, wooded areas, and swampy sections, each of which supports plant and animal communities uniquely adapted to the moist conditions of the floodplain. You have also observed evidence of the power of raging floodwaters, and hopefully have gained an understanding of the important function that floodplains serve.
It is essential, for ourselves and for the benefit of future generations, that we do our part to leave floodplains in their natural state, and carefully manage new development in the surrounding watersheds.
Thank you for visiting the Ashland Nature Center. I hope you learned something new! If you liked this trail (and your narrator), consider hiking the Succession Trail sometime, complete with an audio guide just like this one. Bye for now!