Change is coming to the Osage Nation Heritage Trail that should make the popular recreational area even more appealing.
In mid-March, 19 baskets for a new disc golf course designed by former World Champion Avery Jenkins are expected to be set – with an eye to completing the course in about a month.
And more improvements are in store that will take a bit longer: A stocked fishing pond, new access points on Bird Creek for picnicking and fishing, and new trees and shrubs from which visitors will be able to pluck pawpaws, chokeberries, persimmons, elderberries, pecans and walnuts, said Craig Walker, the environmental supervisor for the Nation’s Department of Natural Resources.
Since the park opened in the spring of 2021, other changes have been wrought, most notably two environmentally friendly playgrounds with botanical and Osage themes that were designed by the same company, Play By Design, that created the playgrounds at Tulsa’s enormously popular Gathering Place.
The playgrounds, one for small children and one for mid-sized children, have been drawing packed crowds on warm winter days since they were completed in mid-December.
“We wanted to tie it in with the trails, but we also wanted something that said this is the Osage Nation,” Walker said. “And one of the best ways we figured out was to incorporate some Osage colors and ribbonwork in the panels.”
The playground safety surface is also in a ribbonwork pattern: “The gray is actually supposed to be white but white is impossible to keep clean,” Walker said during a walk around the park.
An Osage disc golf course
The disc golf course also has an Osage theme. It will have 19 holes, including a “bonus hole” with a 150-foot throw over Bird Creek at the suspension bridge off Main Street.
It was when two large cranes were setting the bridge that the idea for a disc golf course was born, Walker said. He and colleague Tom Ashmore were watching the installation when Ashmore suggested that it would be fun to throw something across the creek to see just how far it was.
“I was like, you know what? My brother (who plays disc golf) would love to throw a Frisbee across this thing,” Walker recalled. “And that kind of sparked the idea for an extra activity for all ages.”
The course, called 𐓁𐒻𐓂𐒼𐒰͘𐓆𐒼𐒰 for Children of the Middle Waters, is going to mirror how Osages set up ancestral camps, Walker said: The north side for the Sky People or Tzi-Zho and the south side for the Earth People or Hun-Kah. Each of the baskets will bear messenger names for the clans: The first will be the Awakener, and others will bear such names as Dog Star and Buffalo Bull.
The course designer, Jenkins, said that the Nation’s will bring the number of disc golf courses to five in Pawhuska, making the city likely the world’s most dense in terms of disc golf courses per capita, therefore a “mecca” for disc golfers.
“Five courses is huge,” said Jenkins, who married Leah Taylor, Osage, after meeting her at her parents’ Jim and Debbie Taylor’s two top-ranked disc golf courses in Pawhuska during a world tour there in 2009.
“We’re using parts of the park that aren’t going to be used for anything else,” Jenkins said. “It’s very accessible and very inviting, and it’s going to have some technicality to it playing in the woods.
“It’s definitely one of the most unique courses I’ve worked on.”
Jenkins’ father-in-law, Jim Taylor, was effusive about Jenkins’ skills.
“Avery is to disc golf what Tiger Woods used to be to ball golf,” Taylor said.
The disc golf course will be the most immediate change, but others are in the offing.
Some address complaints: Parents and caregivers have complained about the lack of seating around the playgrounds, so the Nation is building traditional benches using surplus treated lumber left over from building benches for the three new village dance arbors.
The lack of bathrooms has also been the subject of complaints. Walker said the Nation is trying to address that issue: A sewer line traverses the area just north of the playgrounds, but there is no water line except across U.S. 60. Restrooms may be built across Bird Creek at Harvest Land farm, but the issue remains in early planning stages.
Near Harvest Land, excavation work is starting to build a large pond in the shape of an arrowhead like that on the Osage seal. It will be stocked with fish for anglers of all ages, Walker said.
Also, for fishermen and for those who just want to eat outdoors: Access points are to be added to the banks of Bird Creek, along with picnic tables.
The entire Heritage Trail tree canopy is also getting a bit of a clean-up to increase the bird traffic – and bird watchers.
Cameron Chesbro, the DNR’s resident ornithologist, is compiling a list of species that have been spotted that will be put in an informative pamphlet. Bald eagles, indigo buntings, red tail hawks, pileated woodpeckers and many other birds have been observed, along with a gray fox, an alleged badger, beavers and other more commonplace mammals like deer, squirrels, opossums and prairie dogs, the last of whom are to be rehomed. The Nation is also putting together a list of fish that can be caught in that area of Bird Creek.
Get out and move
Around the same time that the playgrounds were installed, the Nation also added fitness stations to the walking, running and biking trails to entice passersby into performing push-ups, stair steps and other exercises.
“We’re really trying to focus on and incorporate health on these trails,” Walker said. “Anything we can do to get people outdoors.
“Especially with the timeframe that we had during Covid, being outdoors was a little bit better for you than being inside.
“So, we’re really trying to find a way to reach out to everyone, whether it was the kids with the playground, teenagers or adults looking for something different than walking or running the trail.”
The trail has been a magnet for both visitors and locals. Although the numbers of visitors have not been logged, Walker and others who work on the trail often have to park at Main and Lynn and work their way on bobcats and other equipment from there because the playground area is full. Visitors from Vermont, Oregon and other states have taken the initiative to pop over to Harvest Land to offer their praise for the park.
Another change is also being pondered: The north nature trail tends to wash away, so the Nation is considering using flat rock from the Osage Nation Ranch to pave it, but with a twist: Each stone would have etched upon it the name of an Osage family.
Said Walker: “Families are building blocks and the foundation of the tribe is its people, so we want to acknowledge everyone we can and let them leave their mark on something that will withstand the test of time.”
It wasn’t so long ago that the Nation didn’t realize that it owned the 70 acres that now comprises the Heritage Trail and Harvest Land. The land had been donated to the Nation by the Lynn family decades earlier, but it somehow escaped notice until the current administration took office in 2014.
Walker recalled Assistant Chief Raymond Red Corn stopping by to pick him up in an old green Subaru and driving him out to the area one day after a thunderstorm had soaked Pawhuska.
“He’s driving around in the mud, and I was thinking, ‘We’re going to get stuck. What is he doing?’” Walker recalled. “And he says, ‘We own this! We need to incorporate some agriculture out here.’
“And from that point on, it was OK, we’re doing it.”
Federal money distributed because of the pandemic made the largest impact on the project, funding much of the massive greenhouses and program building, along with the heritage trail.
“I want to say we’re on the right track,” Walker said. “We’re nowhere near where we want to be, but I feel like we’re better off than we were; it was a property that was just sitting until its rediscovery.
“There are a lot of things that we as the Osage Nation are trying to fight and overcome: Diabetes and obesity, those are things that historically have been a major issue within the Osage Nation. “Any little way we can help overcome that and fight the good fight, we’re going to do it.”