WALLA WALLA - My first experience at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-managed Bennington Lake was when I took my son Dan and his friend to see the lake drained.
The exhilarating experience of sliding and rolling in the mud was heaven for two 8-year-old boys. What was I thinking?!
Years later Bennington became an important part of my life in a very different way. And since earlier this year, when the federal government included the 20-plus miles of trails along the lake and its Mill Creek watershed into the National Recreation Trail System, I imagine more people will be finding out about what I've come to know and love about the area.
For 10 years I have been exploring the trails with my two golden retrievers, 10 and 11. It has become not only a place to exercise but an area to explore and experience the seasons of our Valley.
As a young girl, living in the Austrian Alps, walking and nature was a natural part of our day. Likewise, Bennington gives me this feeling of being a part of nature.
As an amateur photographer, it inspires me to record our days and experiences as a visual diary. I like to photograph as if I were part of a painting.
Each seasons offer a visual palette - from the riot of greens in the spring and summer to the showy brilliance of fall colors.
One of my favorite trails is one we've personally dubbed the "Hobbit Trail" - a twisting path shrouded with tall spring grasses that make it seem it was right out of "The Lord Of the Rings."
Wildlife, too, is always an experience that adds wonder. I recall rounding a curve on the Meadowlark Trail at sundown and there were two baby owls perched high on a stump. For many days they could be seen, waiting to be fed. I've also spotted beavers swimming and great blue herons poised to spear a fish, and taken in the visual feast of scented roses and grasses during spring and summer.
Some of the most dramatic scenes for me are during the colder months. It's nature at its honest best - trees with their stark outlines, gray and violet hues of the hills, the magic of frost-covered landscapes transforming even the plainest plant to a thing of beauty. The mystical beauty of fog covering Bennington with its cloak transforming the area into an enchanted land.
Best of all are the snow-hushed landscapes - solitude on one hand, and on the other happy romping dogs and grown-ups remembering how to be young again.
And then there's the people I meet along the trail and their pets, from Zoey the Jack Russell terrier to Charlie the giant great Dane. Whether the people enjoying the outdoors are dog walkers, birders or horseback riders, all are an important part of my Bennington experience. Indeed, Bennington becomes a community in itself.
It's new designation as the Bennington Lake National Recreation Trail System was announced by Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar and National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis on June 2, 70 years after the Corps of Engineers' completion of Mill Creek Dam, which created the lake.
Walking around the lake area with Jeremy Nguyen, natural resource specialist at the Corps Walla Walla District, we talked about how the beauty of Bennington was born of disaster downstream.
"In 1931 the city of Walla Walla suffered a flash flood that did a large amount of damage," he said. So that it wouldn't happen again, the Virgil B. Bennington, then president of the Walla Walla Chamber of Commerce, lobbied Congress for a flood control project. Called the Mill Creek Project, it was completed in 1942.
It was unique in that it used an off stream reservoir to store flood water during a flood event and release it after the flood risk had passed, Nguyen said. Recreation was added to the project in 1965. Bennington Lake reservoir was partially filled for recreational purposes, and soon after the surrounding area was explored and the Bennington Lake Trail System began to take shape. Today the trails wind their way through approximately 600 acres.
The two longest named trails are the Whitetail Trail, at 4.8 miles, and the 2.6-mile Meadowlark Trail. The Whitetail Trail, popular with horseback riders and mountain bikers, follows the boundary of the area, Nguyen said. Along it can be seen whitetail deer, great horned owls, American kestrels and coyotes. Black locust trees, native bunchgrass and mixed prairie growth are part of the foliage along the trail.
The Meadowlark Trail follows the shoreline of the lake and inlet canal. In the spring the inlet gushes with the sounds of running water as it flows into the lake. You can hear and see a variety of birds: herons, ducks, osprey, geese, cormorants and owls among them.
A third named trail is the 1.7-mile paved Kingfisher Trail that follows Mill Creek from near Walla Walla Community College to the creek's diversion structure.
The trails and lake lend themselves to a variety of activities for walkers, runners, rollerbladers, equestrians, bicyclists, boaters, fishing, bird watchers. Hunting is also permitted in season and only in designated areas.
The many trails offer different levels of difficulty, making it easy to find a route to fit one's activity and ability.
Each year the Bennington Lake area receives an average of 300,00 visitors. To me, they are an important part of my Bennington experience. Indeed, Bennington becomes a community in itself.
Esther Wofford is a Walla Walla photographer and frequent contributor to The Walla Walla Valley Weekly's "Pic of the Week" feature.
The Adopt A Trail Program
The Bennington Lake area launched an "Adopt a Trail" program began in 2009 in which people can help the U.S. Corps of Engineers maintain recreational benefits
Groups and individuals adopt a segment of a trail and clean and check their section in spring, summer and fall. The program helps keep the trails safe and clean for everyone.
In 2011, 30 participants re-routed an eroded section of Whitetail Trail into a winding trail, according to Jeremy Nguyen, natural resources specialist with the Corps' Walla Walla District, which manages Bennington Lake area.
The Washington National Guard completed a different section of the trail, including planting of trees on this winding downhill path. The Boy Scouts of America built the five "water guzzler" troughs around the Whitetail in addition to their annual Christmas tree collection project that provides habitat for small animals and birds during the year.
In addition to offering daily recreational use, Bennington Lake also hosts special events. Three of the largest are the Onion Man Triathlon; walking and horse riding events in the annual Gran Fondo fundraiser hosted by Providence St. Mary Regional Cancer Center; and the Allegro Cyclery Cyclocross Race.
For more information on the Bennington Lake National Recreational Trail System and a map, visit http://www.americantrails.org/nationalrecreationtrails/ and input "Bennington Lake" in the search window.