Friends of Peak Creek Revitalize Pulaski's Waters

If you grew up around water, chances are as a kid you wanted to jump in and splash around. There's nothing more fun than cooling off on a hot day by jumping in the lake, or wading through the creek. When I was a kid, many hours were spent in the creek by my grandma's house trying to catch crawdads with my hands (more often than not I ended up with a few pinched fingers). But I was lucky; the stream that ran by her house was rather small, and with her living in tucked away hollow it was pretty safe to assume that I wouldn't cut my hands or feet on trash that might be laying on the creek bottom, or get sick from something that was in the water that shouldn't be. The same can now be said for Peak Creek in the Town of Pulaski thanks to the efforts of Friends of Peak Creek, a non-profit organization dedicated to restoring and preserving the natural beauty of one of the Town's most recognizable features.

Friends of Peak Creek (FOPC) was incorporated in 2013, but was unofficially founded a bit before that. There were only four founding members; Vicky Houk, Sybil Atkinson, and Ron and Linda Hall. They were originally part of the Citizens Brownfields Grant Program team. As time has progressed, many more members now make up the ranks of the organization, and the leadership has changed hands as well. Cathy Hanks is now the president of FOPC, and has been so since 2014. She actually found out about the organization through an impromptu photo-op. "I was working for Draper Aden Associates at the time, and they [Vicky, Sybil, John and Linda] had asked me to come down and take a photo of them to document FOPC getting started, and I just got involved." The original team was focused on the economic aspects of renovating the walls that flank either side of Peak Creek.

That isn't to say that they weren't aware of the need for environmental renovation though; they absolutely were. When Cathy joined however, she was more focused on the environmental aspect of the restoration process. "I was raised on the south side of Pulaski, so I crossed the creek every day to do something. You had to cross the creek to get school, to get to church, to get to the store. And everyone in Town does that, they just don't think about it. You don't think about the creek at all, until it's flooding or if something gross is floating in it, or if you're feeding the ducks." She knew that they needed to be the people that thought about Peak Creek when no one else was, and that approach led them into a growing and evolving project that has grown in scope ever since FOPC was first started. "It grew from the Town, to the [whole] creek, to the Town limits. FOCL (Friends of Claytor Lake) got involved and kind of mentored us on how to keep the organization going, and now it's the whole Peak Creek watershed."

We often just think about our own little section of Peak Creek right here in Town. But in actuality, the whole of Peak Creek is about 26 miles in length. It's also the major tributary that feeds into Claytor Lake. As mentioned, the role of FOPC has grown quite a bit with time. The Peak Creek watershed covers about 60 square miles, which is a rather large portion of our area. The upkeep of the entirety of Peak Creek and its surroundings is very important for the health of the overall ecosystem, as one tiny portion can have a snowball effect on the remainder of the creek. "It's a constant learning process, and we're always learning, every day. Every meeting basically, we're learning about something else that we need to take into consideration."

Creek cleanups are usually held annually or bi-annually, depending on the need and the interest generated by the public. Their first cleanup was held right before PulaskiFest, and FOPC quickly decided to arrange another one scheduled for October. "It was really cold, but we said ‘let's just try it'. We had about 10 citizens show up, about half the Town council, the Mayor. A deputy brought inmates. And then someone said ‘so, when's the next one?' and it was kind of like uh oh, we're gonna have to organize." The support for FOPC has been outstanding from the public thus far, and the Town of Pulaski itself couldn't be happier to work directly with FOPC on Peak Creek's restoration, providing equipment and manpower whenever possible. The great thing about FOPC is that you don't have to be a member to participate. They gladly accept any and all volunteers; if you want to help out with a cleanup, just show up ready to jump in the creek and they'll bring you along, no questions asked. If your interests lie elsewhere, you can also help out in other ways. FOPC has also created and maintains a bird trail along Dora Highway and a pollinator garden in Heritage Park, both located near the waterway. All meetings are open to the public as well, if you'd like to come and contribute your ideas to the team.

That diversification of their efforts has brought in even more people interested in collaborating with FOPC in their projects. The aforementioned bird trail project attracted the interest of a research student at Virginia Tech; their studies involved the research of a specific mite that can only be found in Blue Jay nests. He reached out to FOPC for help, and they were happy to oblige. They saved the old nests after the birds left and sent them to the student, helping them tremendously in their studies. Cathy has also been contacted by several other outside organizations to give presentations and talks on their work. "I was asked to come and give a presentation to the New River Master Gardener's Association about what we do. It helped that we had started the pollinator garden and we got a grant from them to start it, but you know, that got that information out to a much wider area." The publicity is much appreciated, because any attention placed on Peak Creek and its health is a win for Cathy and FOPC.

One of FOPC's next big projects involves something called "doodle dust". Doodle dust is a by-product waste material of the old acid plant in Pulaski which was around until sometime in the 1950's, the property of which is now owned by Honeywell. Due to the times, people didn't understand just how bad the material was for themselves and the environment; folks actually used to ride their bikes around in the stuff! Anyway, part of the embankment of Peak Creek near the plant was capped a while back, to make sure the area was safe for the public to enjoy. Unfortunately, the creek has eroded underneath the cap, and the doodle dust is now exposed and visible. FOPC hopes to remedy the situation with the help of a group of undergrad research students at Virginia Tech funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

FOPC has big plans for Peak Creek over the next 5 to 10 years. For starters, they hope to address the doodle dust issue; with the scope associated with that project, Cathy expects it to take some time to resolve. She also mentioned the Town's plan to incorporate bike trails connecting important hubs throughout the Town, and expressed an interest in including Peak Creek in some fashion along the trail. There's also hope for substantial growth. "I'd love to see us get so big that we need to get our own building or space. We've got stuff strung out everywhere, from Christiansburg to the Episcopal Church to the Town shops. It would be great to have a place that's ours."

In today's world, environmental awareness is one of the key issues that people think about in day to day life, especially in younger generations. FOPC is very interested in recruiting more young people to join their ranks; many of the board members are on the older side and retirees, so within 10 years young people will be a necessity for the organization. I feel that as long as FOPC continues on their current path, they will have no problem in attracting new faces. The old saying still rings true; if you build it, they will come.

The Town of Pulaski continues to look forward to championing Friends of Peak Creek in all their endeavors. The waterway is and has been a Pulaski icon since the Town's inception, and our future is bright with such wonderful people taking care of our aquatic ecosystem. If you have any interest in joining FOPC or you know someone who might, check out their website or Facebook to get in contact and find out more about how to get involved.

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