Nestled amidst the trees, the two new observation decks in the woods next to Prater’s Mill seem miles from civilization.
Actually, though, the decks – located along the Norma Gordon Nature Trail – offer a convenient way for area residents to step back and take a momentary break from the hectic world around them and enjoy the natural beauty of Whitfield County year round.
“Prater’s Mill really is a hidden treasure,” says Greg Bruner, a member of the Prater’s Mill Foundation board who oversaw construction of the new platforms. “It’s great that we have such a significant property in that part of the county. And it’s just another park that we’re going to be really fortunate to have here.”
While it’s no secret around the Southeast that Prater’s Mill has been the site of popular country fairs for decades, the Foundation recently commissioned the creation of a master plan to guide future development of the site, including the decks along the nature trail on the 80-acre site donated by the Boring family and located off Cleveland Highway on Prater’s Mill Road.
The Foundation used a $2,938 grant from the Department of Natural Resources to pay for the two decks – one that overlooks Coahulla Creek (6 x12 feet) and another larger, higher one (12 x 12 feet) that provides a bird’s eye view of the surrounding area. Whitfield County Buildings & Grounds crews constructed the decks earlier this summer, and already visitors have begun to walk through the two-mile-long loop, observing all that Mother Nature has to offer there, including a rookery where great blue heron have been raising their babies for the past two years
“In the fall and winter, the view will really be spectacular,” Mr. Bruner says. “From that high platform, you can look across and see the great blue heron rookery. The fledglings have already flown away from the nest right now, but we’re hopeful they’ll come back next spring, They usually do come back to the same colony, but you never know… fingers crossed.”
The first platform, located near the creek, is about a quarter-mile away from the beginning of the trail, which is located in the woods north of the old mill. The second larger platform is about a mile in.
Mr. Bruner says he walked the trail a few days ago with two teachers from nearby Coahulla Creek High School, who are planning to take advantage of the expanded trail in their agricultural science and environmental science classes.
“They’re interested in using it as an extension of their classroom and are pretty excited about the opportunity,” he said, noting that the larger observation deck is only about a quarter-mile from the edge of the school property and could easily be made accessible on a trail already built as part of an Eagle Scout project.
Since parts of the trail sometimes are flooded by Coahulla Creek after heavy rains, Mr. Bruner is excited about another recent $11,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Northwest Georgia that will pay for construction of additional footbridges and boardwalks across some of the lower-lying areas this winter.
“We’ve already got some small footbridges now, but they’re just resting on the surface and tend to get moved around when the water rises,” Mr. Bruner says. “The new footbridges and boardwalks will be more permanent structures anchored into the ground and will allow visitors to easily walk on and off them. The new structures will also help protect fragile plant life and won’t block natural water from flowing under them.”
He believes the project will reduce the number of days the trail is impassable because of high water to maybe half a dozen per year. “But I think without those new structures, it would be 30 days a year,” he says, “so the bridges and boardwalks will just make it much more dependable in terms of people being able to go out there and get through without running into problems crossing water.”
For visitors who aren’t familiar with the plants and animals they’re seeing, the Foundation – with the help of Southern Adventist University outdoor master’s education student Cheryl Craven – has been mapping the trail to create explanatory signage. Helping with that project has also been a team of botanists from the DNR to ensure the different plants and trees along the trail are identified correctly, Mr. Bruner says.
The nature trail will also take advantage of the latest technology, including the use of QR codes along the way ‘so that you can get a whole lot information about the plants and animals you’re seeing, just by scanning the codes with your smartphone,” he added.
Age-appropriate activities will also be posted along the way, and visitors will be able to use an app named iNaturalist to take photos of the sights there. “This app will automatically associate the photos with the trail and the site, so we’ll eventually have this cloud-sourced listing of the plant and animal life out there,” Mr. Bruner says. “Even though you’re out there in the quiet and the peace, you can also – if you’re a techie – pull it up on your phone and see all the things that people have observed out there.”
The Foundation hopes to have the master plan in hand in about four months, construction of the footbridges and boardwalks completed over the winter, and the signs explaining it all in place by next spring.
In the meantime, though, visitors to the site are welcome to walk through the trail on their own. During the annual Prater’s Mill Country Fair on Oct. 9-10, Craven will even be there to offer guided tours of the trail to the public.
“It won’t really be a grand opening because we won’t have all the foot bridges and boardwalks built yet,” Mr. Bruner says, “but the nature platforms will be there and the trail will be groomed. Even though it’s not a finished product, it will be open to the public to enjoy.”