SHULTZ: Lockport’s local treasure of nature

I am always surprised by how many people in Lockport don’t realize that you can drive from Main Street to the Adirondacks in less than 15 minutes. Ok, I don’t mean the actual Adirondacks but a beautiful hundred-acre version of it right nearby – the Town of Lockport Nature Trail. It is a stunning treasure of nature right on our doorstep.

The entrance, marked by a giant wooden sign, is on Slayton Settlement Road between Wick Road and Day Road. As soon as you park your car and walk through the front gate you enter a different world. It is a forest of trees in all directions – sycamores, ironwoods and more. The oldest are the three huge oaks, the largest one more than 400 years old. Its leaves got their first look at the sky before the Mayflower landed. In a county that is mostly flat to the horizon, the Nature Trail winds its way up and down gentle hills until it reaches a small river that sings in a place where the noise of cars and trucks has mostly disappeared.

As many mornings a week as we can, my dog Lola and I begin our day there early. Often we are the only ones. It takes us about forty minutes to make the full loop. For a long time I resisted knowing my way around, preferring just to get lost in it.

The other thing about the Nature Trail that is almost as inspiring as the nature is the man who takes care of it for all of us, Ken Horvath. For decades Ken worked as an engineer with GM, first here near Lockport then later in Detroit. But his heart was committed to the environment and one of the major projects he led for GM was changing the packaging used to ship the company’s parts across the nation. He helped turn more than ninety percent of it into recyclables.

When he retired back to Lockport fifteen years ago Ken asked the Town, which owns and operates the park, if he could volunteer to be its caretaker. The Town insisted that he accept a modest salary and since then you can find him three seasons a year working part-time taking care of the Nature Trail, Day Road Park, and the Lytle Nature Reserve.

“Officially I am called the ‘Park Ranger,” he tells me. “But really what I am is a steward.”

If you pay attention in the Nature Trail you can see Ken’s careful handiwork. He led the construction of three of the main trails, with the help of local Boy Scouts and others, creating paths that allow visitors to go deep into the back to where the waterfall freezes over in winter. “I like that the trails are all winding. I tell people, ‘If you want to walk in a straight line go to the parking lot at Walmart.”

Pathways that that would otherwise be ponds of mud have been made happily passable by gentle carpets of loose stone that he laid there. One morning last fall I found him happily moving branches off a giant boulder along the trail. “I know that children are going to pass by here now with their parents and say, ‘Hey look at that big rock! Can I climb it?”

Children are close on Ken’s mind as he cares for the park. “The kids are always so excited. They love playing in the water, because that’s what a kid does. In the fall I’ve seen them collecting leaves, or as many different kids as they could find.” His aim is to create a place where the youngest can learn to love nature. “It means so much and that will work on them in the future.”

Ken also talks about another group of park users who are special to him, the visitors who are ill or recovering from painful surgeries, often using a cane. They also come to the park and make their way slowly through the trees. “The psychological and the physical healing that you can do in that park is unbelievable,” he says. Ken is a big believer in the power of nature and solitude to work its magic on people. “I want people to come here who don’t have a big nature background. They just know that they like it.”

Originally purchased by the Town of Lockport in 1955 to serve as a rock quarry and dumping ground for discarded trees and foliage, the Nature Trail was rescued for the ages in the late 1960s by a Town highway worker who lived across the street, Ronnie Weaver. With help from his sons and their Scouting friends he began the construction of the first trails. In 2008 the Town of Lockport dedicated the Nature Trail as an official park and in doing so gave the entire area, and the future, an extraordinary gift.

Last month Ken Horvath turned 76 and he has no plans for slowing down his caretaking of Lockport’s local treasure. He only hopes that one day whoever follows him will care for the Nature Trail with the same affection as he does. “I love the park and that’s what it’s all about.” When you see him, be sure to say thank you.

Jim Shultz, founder and executive director of the Democracy Center, is a father and grandfather in Lockport. He can be reached by email at: jimshultz@democracyctr.org.