History on a Stick

By Patricia Strat
Sunday, June 15, 2008

I'm not a history buff.

The truth is, I much prefer science and nature. While I do occasionally stop along the roadside to read a historical marker, more often than not, I just whiz past and think, "Well, something happened here." If you had told me a year ago that someday I myself would write the 100-word paragraph for a marker describing the career of an important 20th-century person, I would have laughed. I mean, really, if this person were so important, wouldn't someone else already have written about him?

It started with my good friend and co-Girl Scout leader, Marilyn Jenkins, who was building a house near a scout camp. The house was so close, she said, that you could actually walk to the camp. Her property was on a small stream called Difficult Run in a wooded area of Fairfax County, and she'd be able to ride her horse on a network of nearby trails.

I went to visit Marilyn in her new house early in 1998. We were outside with our kids, looking at the site where their barn would be, when Marilyn's younger daughter, Emily, insisted that we visit the "secret pond." We left Marilyn's property, crossing Difficult Run on a sturdy, narrow bridge. After walking a short way on the gravel road, we arrived at two massive stonework pillars and turned onto the trail between them. I asked Marilyn if she was sure this was public land, and she said that someone had told her it was.

Emily had run on ahead, leading the other children along the trail and through a thick stand of bamboo. The bamboo made a low, arching tunnel, but the thicket soon gave way to reveal the secret pond. A trail along the peaceful pond's edge led to a concrete bench. Marilyn said a neighborhood boy had placed the bench there as part of his Eagle Scout project. Three sides of the long pond were shrouded with bamboo. The fourth side, where we were standing, was at the foot of a steep hillside, which was planted with massive azalea and rhododendron bushes. The hillside was terraced with short walls made of stones similar to those in the pillars at the entrance. At the top of the hill, almost hidden by the overgrown vegetation, was a small white house. It looked as if someone lived there.

The next summer, I volunteered to work at the camp for two weeks. Marilyn had invited our group to her property to pick blackberries, so one afternoon we headed down the trail toward her house. When we reached Difficult Run, my co-leader pointed out the remains of a dam. She said that the dam had collapsed several years ago, but she remembered when it was intact and said that campers had enjoyed hiking here to see the waterfall.

Over the next seven years, I made many trips from the scout camp, going past the old dam, crossing the narrow bridge, slipping through the bamboo forest and arriving at the secret pond. I quit worrying about who might be living in the little white house at the top of the hill.

IN 2006, THE FAIRFAX COUNTY PARK AUTHORITY OPENED THE CROSS COUNTY TRAIL, a 40-mile path that links many of the county's stream valleys, including Difficult Run's. My daughter, Karen, and I volunteered to work at the grand opening celebration, and I obtained a set of maps of the trail. I quickly opened the map that covered Oakton. It showed that the secret pond was on public land labeled Gabrielson Gardens Park.

A year later, Karen received approval to do a Girl Scout project at the park, and my curiosity got the better of me. Who was Gabrielson? An Internet search of "Gabrielson Gardens" led only to a topographic map of the park. Searching "Gabrielson" led to numerous entries about books on birds. This was going nowhere. Perhaps I'd have better luck at the library.

The Virginia Room of the old City of Fairfax Regional Library was a small, quiet place with a few large tables in front of the stacks of old books. I wandered up and down the aisles. I pulled out books about local cemeteries but saw no listing for "Gabrielson." In the last aisle were shelves stacked high with old phone books. I grabbed the oldest, from 1962. There, in the G's, was the answer: Ira N. Gabrielson, Leeds Road, Oakton. I pulled out more recent phone books and found that his name was last listed in 1978. I hurried back home to search the Web again.

The Internet holds vast stores of information, but to open the door to the right storehouse, you need the right key. And Ira N. Gabrielson's distinctive name proved to be a great key. Within an hour, I knew that the man who had once lived in the small white house on top of the hill, the man who had loved the secret pond, Difficult Run and all the birds and animals that made that place their home, had been one of the most important international wildlife conservationists of the 20th century.

Ira Noel Gabrielson was the first director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He was a highly regarded biologist, ornithologist, author and administrator. His colleagues called him "Dr. Gabe." His wife, Clara, and friends called him "Gabe." His diaries, many of his manuscripts and his other important papers are held either by the Smithsonian Institution or the Denver Public Library. After Gabrielson's death, the National Wildlife Federation named him to its Conservation Hall of Fame. Only 28 individuals had received this posthumous honor, among them, Rachel Carson, Theodore Roosevelt, Jacques Cousteau and John Muir.

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