Brenda Wichmann learned at an early age that the easiest way to stay in touch with nature is to explore it with an open, curious mind. It’s a lesson that Wichmann, who earned a masters degree in botany at NC State in 2009, carries with her every day as the project and trail coordinator for the Haw River Trail in North Carolina.
“As soon as I could walk, my favorite thing to do was explore outside,” she says. “I loved to walk around and look at all the flowers and collect them.”
As trail coordinator at the Haw River Trail, a job she took in December of 2014, Wichmann still gets to explore her surroundings regularly. The trail, which focuses on the Haw River corridor in central North Carolina and includes both land and paddle routes, is planned to be around 70 miles long and follow the path of the Haw River from Haw River State Park to the Jordan Lake State Recreation Area.
As of now, nearly 20 miles of hiking trails, 50 miles of paddle trial, three recreational areas and 14 paddle access sites are open to the public. Trailheads are located in various areas throughout Alamance County, from Burlington to Saxapahaw. The trail’s path through the county will connect it to the North Carolina Mountains-to-Sea Trail, a statewide initiative that begins at Clingman’s Dome on the western border and ends at Jockey’s Ridge on the coast.
Wichmann’s responsibilities involve working with local landowners on conservation efforts as more of the trail is built. She advises them on the best ways to preserve and care for their land, gauges whether they’re interested in donating property and explains the various financial incentives and compensation available to them.
“I sit down with people and I talk to them for a really long time, just to work something out that is beneficial for everyone,” she says. “There’s a lot of pieces that have to come together.”
Wichmann credits her father and grandmother with cultivating her love of botany and the outdoors. As a child, she spent considerable time in the Rocky Mountains, identifying common wildflowers and learning the rudiments of the plant lifecycle.
“My grandmother explained to me that the flowers turned to seeds and that the seeds made baby flowers,” she says. “Picking the flowers would mean that one day, there would be no flowers.”
Wichmann kept this concept of conservation and education in mind as she pursued her degree and furthered her career following graduation. Her time as a graduate student in the botany department prepared her for her work on the Haw River by providing field-based education and management opportunities. She studied plant and microbial biology, worked as a teaching assistant for an Introduction to Ecology class and collaborated with professor Alexander Krings on herbarium curation and management.
After graduation, she worked as a collections manager with a local herbarium. Later, she gained more field experience with NatureServe, focusing on vegetation in communities along the Appalachian Trail.
This combination of field work and community involvement is what drew Wichmann to the Haw River Trail.
“My passion is exactly what the Haw River trail stands for, and that’s why I love this position,” she says. “I am passionate about conservation, but I understand people like to get outdoors and experience things. This is doing just that. It’s conservation through recreation.”
Wichmann sees great things in the future as the trail expands beyond recreation efforts promote eco-tourism and business that cater to outdoor activity. “In the long run,” she says, “I am interested in conserving and developing healthy communities through sustainability and the promotion of ‘local-living.”
— Jenna Calderone