Cook Forest, a great place to stimulate the senses

Pictured is the start of the Catoctin Sensory Trail in Maryland. This trail features a guide rope, one that will be similar to the rope used at the Cook Forest trail.

COOKSBURG — There is nothing like being out in the woods. The branches swaying in the wind, the bright colored leaves falling to the ground and the feeling of plants brushing on your limbs.

Nature is for everyone to  enjoy. Unlike other activities, it doesn’t cost money to enjoy a forest. All you need is time and the right location.

Unfortunately, not everyone is able to enjoy the great outdoors, something Cook Forest State Park is looking to change.

If you have ever hiked in the area, you know that the uneven ground, steep terrain and expansive grounds can be difficult to navigate. For someone with a sprained ankle or a wheelchair, getting around the trails and paths can be difficult.

Take away the sense of sight and taking a walk in Cook Forest State Park becomes nearly impossible.

Mary Beth and Mike Doyle are retirees who have a little place a stone throws away from the state park. They were married in 1978, and decided to honeymoon in the park.

Just as they fell in love with each other, they also fell in love with the forest. In the 1980s the couple knew they needed a place near the forest to call their own. “It’s our happy place,” said Mary Beth.

Over the decades, they expanded their living space there, as they have lots of visitors. Friends and family love coming to their hideaway in the forest and jump at the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors.

One of their favorite visitors is their granddaughter, a 16-year-old who lost her sight a couple of years ago. “She comes to visit a lot,” said Mary Beth, but said it can be a struggle to find a good place for her to enjoy the forest.

In March of 2020, the couple decided to wait out the pandemic at their place in the forest. While packing in a panic, Mary Beth sprained her ankle. For the first time, she and her husband started to use the park’s Paved Trail.

With a bad ankle, the paved trail was much easier for her to walk on. The Doyle’s are also in their 70s, and know that paved ground is easier for them to walk on.

They had some friends come to visit who used wheelchairs and walkers. Even they were able to use the trail.

The paved trail was great for a bad ankle, but Doyle knew it could be upgraded to help even more people.

“Eventually we will all need this trail, it is just an easier way to get to enjoy the forest,” she said.

While on a visit to Pittsburgh, the Doyle family discovered something that they thought would be perfect for the paved path — a sensory trail. The trail, equipped with a paved path, guide rope, adequate benches and signage with both braille and raised lettering, was something they knew that Cook Forest needed.

To help her granddaughter, and others with disabilities that come to the forest, the Doyles have been advocating and fundraising for a sensory trail to be added to the forest.

“We want everybody to enjoy nature, to feel it, smell it, live it,” said Mary Beth.

The Sensory Trail can also be used by those diagnosed with autism. The organization “Friends of Cook Forest” and the Doyle’s have already started to reach out to organizations and school districts. The responses were all positive.

Once they got the idea, the Doyle’s and the Friends of Cook Forest went to work. They quickly raised the money needed, thanks to generous donations, and work will start this month on the trail.

The plan is for the sensory trail to be completed in the spring of 2022.

Mary Beth worked for 30 years as the director of Disability Services at the Community College of Allegheny County. She has dedicated much of her life to those with disabilities, and even after retirement has continued to advocate. “These are people who are often overlooked,” she said.

For more information on the trail and the Friends of Cook Forest,visit friendsofcookforest.org/.

Dvorkin can be reached by email at Gdvorkin@titusvilleherald.com.

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