Thumbing through a local newspaper more than 20 years ago, Jack Miller stumbled across a small advertisement that caught his eye: The administration of Ridley Creek State Park, the 2,606-acre park in Delaware County, was looking for volunteers. Friends, more specifically.
The Friends of Ridley Creek State Park is a group comprised of volunteers dedicated to smoothing out the park’s rough edges. State employees take care of things like building maintenance and plumbing. The Friends, though, focus on maintaining the paths. Clearing fallen trees. Removing invasive species. Even building bridges.
Miller, who has served as the group’s president for about 10 years, is grateful he followed up on the newspaper ad and attended that first meeting. The Friends have provided him, and many others, a sense of purpose rooted in a love for nature.
“It’s like taking care of your own house or your own apartment. You just want to make it nicer,” Miller said. “We go out in nature and make it nicer.”
The Friends meet on the first Saturday of every month — rain, shine, sleet or snow. They venture into the wilderness, armed with hand saws, shovels and pickaxes — whatever is needed for the task at hand. They also raise funds for the park, holding fundraising events and an annual photo competition.
Their methods have gotten more sophisticated over time. At first, they scattered about the park with little direction, not knowing what needed to be fixed and which tools were necessary. Now, Miller and other members scout out the park a few days in advance and note the various problems. Also, park-goers record things that need fixing in a notebook in the park office.
Then, on the first Saturday of the month, the Friends divide into two groups and conquer, maps in hand and itinerary planned.
“It’s nice to know what the problem is before you go out,” Miller said.
The problems range in degree of difficulty. Miller said the group has put together multiple bridges at the park, buying supplies from the local hardware store and building the structure together. Some members take the opportunity to release frustration by hacking at trees, all the while observing the nature around them.
Miller recalled once seeing a rabbit scurrying about on a snowy day, evading the footsteps of nearby humans. The rabbit’s escape plan was doomed from the start. A hawk swooped in and gobbled it up.
“It’s nature happening right in front of you. It happens all the time out there,” Miller said. “It’s like, ‘Wow, this is really nature.’
“You can wander across the edge of the river creek, and it’ll be a picture you won’t see in any painting or any piece of artwork.”
The Friends’ work also includes clipping away invasive vegetation, such as multiflora rose and winged euonymus. Former Friends President Tim Higgins explained that some plants are accidentally introduced to the environment and are not recognized as food by animals in the park.
“These plants end up occupying space that is normally occupied by plants browsed and eaten by fauna,” Higgins said.
More than 40 Friends chapters exist within the Pennsylvania Parks & Forest Foundation, a nonprofit, tax-exempt 501(c)3 corporation founded to preserve, protect and enhance Pennsylvania’s state parks and forests.
PPFF is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, meaning area Friends groups are reflecting on the work they’ve done over the years.
Higgins is especially proud of the project he completed with fellow Friends group member Gary Sawyer. About four years ago, the duo worked with a vendor to organize a 12-mile-long trail-marking system. Sawyer and Higgins hiked around the park digging holes and filling them with posts, which are about 6 feet tall.
“It’s been very helpful to users of the park,” Higgins said.
For Higgins, though, perhaps the most rewarding aspect of being part of the group is the camaraderie.
“It’s a common sense of trying to give something back to the community, and make a public facility better,” Higgins said. “We all have a great love of the outdoors.”
Miller said he’s enthralled by the spontaneity of the park.
“You can be walking ahead quietly and a fox will come out and look at you. You can’t see something like that in your backyard,” Miller said. “You see all kinds of cool stuff. It’s not on TV — it’s right there in front of you. There are people that like that kind of stuff, and there are people who like to look at their phone and use their two thumbs all day long.”
Even before Miller joined the Friends, he found himself wandering through the park several times a month. Before the land was sold to the state, much of it was owned by horse breeder Walter M. Jeffords and his wife, Sarah, the niece of Samuel D. Riddle, a prominent businessman who died in 1951.
Miller often found himself exploring the relic of history, discovering old equipment in barns and buggies without horses. Now, the park is a thriving beacon of nature, home to innumerable plants and animals.
Sometimes, people running the trails will come across a member of the Friends clearing a path or snipping away invasive vegetation.
“They’ll stop and see us. They’ll say, ‘Oh, I wondered who cleaned that,’” Miller said. “Then people will join the group the next month because they want to help clean the trails they use.”
[email protected]; 215-832-0737