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Two glass-encased signboards describing the base’s natural and cultural resources mark the beginning of Misawa Air Base’s 1.24-mile nature trail.
Two glass-encased signboards describing the base’s natural and cultural resources mark the beginning of Misawa Air Base’s 1.24-mile nature trail. (U.S. Air Force)

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — Posted in this spot on base are Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words, “Adopt the pace of nature: Her secret is patience.”

Away from the noisy flight line, concrete offices and shops and high-rise towers is a 1.24-mile meandering path through a pocket of quiet forest. Japanese wild ginger, chocolate vine and fragrant snowbells grow amid oak, walnut and bamboo. Raspberry and gooseberry appear seasonally, and trillium, a rare orchid, dots the marshy wetland in summer.

At least 80 different trees and plants flourish along Misawa’s own nature trail, one of the base’s best-kept secrets and, until recently, forgotten treasures.

A university biology professor, a Japanese botanist, Boy Scouts and base officials from several agencies joined to spruce up the footpath, replacing bridges, clearing overgrowth and identifying and signing the diverse flora.

“I think it’s one of our hidden resources,” said Darrin Nicholson, a senior master sergeant who serves as the Misawa Boy Scouts’ zone commissioner. “You really can’t believe — once you’re walking it — that it’s part of the base.”

The trail starts in a dwarf bamboo thicket between the base ski lodge and Davy Jones Locker and cuts through a secondary forest near Lake Ogawara, ending near the base beach.

Though it’s not known how long the trail has existed and who blazed it — some say it was the Boy Scouts years ago — the Scouts recently, in cooperation with Outdoor Recreation, which manages the area, have worked to make the trail more accessible to hikers.

“I started taking students down there about three years ago,” said John Klock, a University of Maryland University College biology professor at Misawa. “I found it was kind of abandoned. There was an old sign saying ‘Nature Trail’ on the ground.”

Klock’s botany students brought guidebooks to identify vegetation. It was an ideal field trip, a few minutes down the road from the classroom. Stumped by a few plant names, Klock checked with 35th Civil Engineering Squadron’s Environmental Flight to see if their experts could help. They did, agreeing to fund a signage project to label the flora.

“We wanted to do something beneficial for this community and to promote educational awareness of the base’s abundant natural and horticultural resources,” said environmental technician Takeshi Ukon, the lead project coordinator.

A Japanese botanist was enlisted. Three months later, trees and plants along the trail were tagged. About 77 small wooden placards were made, displaying each species’ photograph and its Latin, English and Japanese names.

Members of Boy Scout Troop No. 14, led by Kraig Robinson as part of an Eagle Scout project, assisted with tacking up the signs several weeks ago. The Boy Scouts last year also replaced three rotting bridges along the trail as part of Lucas Duraccio’s Eagle Scout project, according to Nicholson, who noted the Scouts frequently use the area for orienteering and plant identification merit badges. Last summer, the Scouts also cleared overgrowth from the path.

That old, fallen sign Klock spoke of was replaced by two large signboards posted at the trailhead, listing interesting tidbits about the trail — “the young stem of the fuki plant is edible” — as well as describing other natural and cultural resources found on base. That’s where you’ll also find Emerson’s prose.

The trail is open now, though it’s typically concealed by snow five months of the year.

Klock said he’s found that on U.S. military bases around the world, natural interpretation is often ignored. Some people, he said, had clamored to open the trail to mountain biking. It’s nice to see “a focus on the environment,” he said. “That’s the thing I like — it’s valuing the place for what it really is.”

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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