Hard Work and Sweat

September 14, 2011

Imagine a group of Indians sitting quietly under the shade of a tree, wiping sweat from their brow and calculating how many more trips they must make with their baskets to complete their newest mound.  They have made countless trips already and their efforts are almost complete.  Hard work and sweat were some of the tools used recently to preserve a piece of Arkansas’ history.  Recently, the staff at Toltec Mounds Archeological State Park worked side by side with the Arkansas Archeological Survey, volunteers from the Arkansas Archeological Society, and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commissions “Stream Team” to stop the erosion of one of the mound slopes at the park.  A sense of accomplishment was the end result, knowing that we had done our part to preserve this piece of the past.  Here is our story.

Artifacts

Artifacts

One fall afternoon, the park staff was picking up trash along the lake bank and discovered several artifacts that had surfaced on Mound P.  The fluctuating water levels of the lake had partly caused the erosion of the back side of this mound.  The survey archeologist at the time was Dr. Jane Anne Blakney-Bailey.  Under her direction, we surface collected the artifacts and started making plans to stabilize the slope.  The picture to the right shows some of the artifacts that were collected.

Bone disc

Bone disc

One of the first things that needed to be done was to excavate a portion of the mound.  This area of the site was uncharted territory for professional archeologist so this was an exciting opportunity to explore the mound.  The Arkansas Archeological Society and the Arkansas Archeological Survey held the annual training dig at Toltec Mounds during the summer of 2010.  Under the direction of Dr. Blakney-Bailey, Mound P was selected as a dig location.  There were six units opened up and a wide variety of artifacts and features were discovered at this location during excavation.  The picture shows a one of the artifacts  that was found as a result of this excavation.

Once the excavation was complete, further plans were made to stabilize the mound so that more artifacts were not lost to erosion.  Park Superintendent Stewart Carlton worked to find the best possible methods to get the job done.  He enlisted the advice and help of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s Stream Team” and the current resident archeologist Dr. Elizabeth Horton.  They worked together to develop a preservation plan.  The plan was carried out on August 31st, 2011.  The loose vegetation was cleared away and coconut matting was placed directly on the mound surface and held in place with wooden stakes.  Large tree trunks were then laid down and secured at the base of the mound with metal cables.  The final step was to plant and encourage vegetation to grow on the mound slope.  Sometimes pictures are worth a thousand words…

This long vanished culture (archeologists call them the Plum Bayou Culture) can speak to us only through artifacts and features like the mounds.  Archeologists get one chance to read the true story of the Plum Bayou Culture.  If erosion, animal burrows or looting get in the way, accurate information is lost forever.  Preserving archeological features allows archeologists a chance to see features of the site undisturbed.  Saving these 1,200 year old features provides priceless information for future generations.

Robin Gabe, Park Interpreter

Robin Gabe, Park Interpreter

Robin Gabe has been a park interpreter at Toltec Mounds Archeological State Park for eight years. She began her career with Arkansas State Park system as a seasonal interpreter at Lake Poinsett State Park. She grew up in Caldwell, Arkansas and received her Bachelor’s of Science in Education from Arkansas State University in Jonesboro in 1997.


Making Arkansas Natural

July 7, 2011
Blue Eyed Grass

Blue Eyed Grass

Arkansas’s motto is “The Natural State”. The natural state just doesn’t mean having nature. If that were true all states can claim to be the natural state. We have to support and be our motto. A part of the State parks mission is to protect and manage our natural resources. I would have to say that each park does their best to uphold their mission…in the park. What we need is for all Arkansans to prove that we can come together and be “The Natural State” we claim to be. It is not hard to start. There are lots of things Arkansans can do. One of the easiest things you can do (and maybe the least thought about) is to plant native plants. Natural is something that is produced in nature and not artificial. What better way to start than to garden and landscape with native plants? You will actually find that our native plants help out our local businesses, are hardy and beautiful.

Blanket flower and Mexican Hat

Blanket flower and Mexican Hat

More bang for our buck! It seems to be more significant than ever to utilize and spend money locally. Arkansans, as well as those from outside Arkansas want to be connected and educated to this state. Almost every day visitors walk through our gift shop wanting to spend their money on gifts made in Arkansas. If people are asking for Arkansas items here, they are definitely asking for them in lots of other stores including gardens and nurseries. People generally like to know where the product they are buying is from. The benefits of buying native plants from local businesses include knowledge from community gardeners. There is rarely a better person to ask questions to than the person who grew the plants you want. Spending money at the local businesses helps your community grow right along with your new plants.

Yellow Indigo

Yellow Indigo

Native plants are much hardier. If you treat them right the first year they will survive. After finding the right plants for your environment, the maintenance for the new native plants goes way down. During the first year, most of your time and sweat is spent watering your plants. Watering a lot the first year is essential to any new plant. Personally, I only fertilized my plants once when they were planted. A year later everything is alive and bloomed out. Watering has gone down to once every one to two weeks for the trees during the summer. If you do your research you can find plants that thrive in this hot Arkansas weather. I am telling you right now you do not have to fight Mother Nature. If you would plant native plants you get the rewards without as much hassle.

There a lot of beauty in Native plants. They come in many shapes, sizes, colors and blooming seasons. The combinations are endless. Even the plants you do not see as beautiful will charm you just because they look healthy. These plants will not only be beautiful but the beauty will last for a longer period of time.

A great list of native plants can be found at PlantNative.org . An internet search of “Arkansas Native Plant Nursery” will give you a list of nurseries that specialize in native plants. I hope this will encourage you to pick native plants for your next project, big or small.

Let’s reclaim the natural state one plant at a time!

Amy Griffin, Park Interpreter

Amy Griffin, Park Interpreter

Amy holds a bachelors degree in Parks and Recreation from Arkansas Tech University. Her career in Arkansas state parks started as a seasonal interpreter in 2006 at DeGray Lake Resort State Park. She is currently a park interpreter at Toltec Mounds Archeological Park and has worked there since 2007. She is also a member of the National Association of Interpreters and a Certified Interpretive Guide.


When All is Lost

January 25, 2011

Interpreters, like most educators, know what it is like to operate on a shoe string budget – utilizing the resources at hand (leaves, seeds, and scenic vistas) and re-utilizing everyday materials (popsicle sticks, material scraps, and my favorite – peanut butter jars). There is something gratifying about not needing all the bells and whistles to highlight the significance of a place as special as Devil’s Den State Park.  However, when the tidbits of ideas, pictures, outlines, and contacts are all taken away, you realize how much time and research has gone into making the history of your park come to life.

On December 20, the interpreters’ office at Devil’s Den State Park was broken into. The perpetrators stole a range of items from our computers that stored things from contact information to pictures to amphitheater programs as well as personal effects like backpacks and hats and program materials like animal skins and binoculars. The saddest part about the loss is not the personal violation one feels when being broken into, but that those items were to help our visitors’ experience the park. These were the tangible items and thoughts that we had accumulated through the years to help tell the unique history of the park.

Although the loss was hard to accept as we walked around in a cloud of disbelief making a list of all the items gone from our repertoire, I am appeased to realize that the story of the park is still here! There was nothing in the office as precious as the materials found throughout the park. I look to the challenge of the days to come as a fresh start, a reason to get out taking photos around the park, a chance to brainstorm ideas, and revamp programs. If my programs were in a rut, they have just been given a fresh start! It will take time to rebuild our interpretive programs, but at least I have a good foundation and a great team to work with. This is a learning experience that has reconnected me to the resources outside my office and the fundamental things that no one can take from you – your ideas, knowledge, and Elmer’s glue (just try it!).

 

The history of Devil's Den is intact, in the park.

The history of Devil's Den is intact, in the park.

Please consider sharing your program ideas with me! What would you like to do on a visit to Devil’s Den State Park?

 

The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet. –  Ralph Waldo Emerson

(Interpreter Spurlock is determined to keep walking! Join her on one of her many fascinating, guided hikes through Devil’s Den State Park.)

Rebekah Spurlock, Devil's Den State Park

Rebekah Spurlock, Interpreter, Devil's Den State Park

Rebekah Spurlock is a native Arkansan, originally from the Delta. Since graduating with her Master’s in Geography in 2007 from the University of Memphis, Rebekah has called Devil’s Den State Park home.


The Clean-up Crew

November 12, 2010

We had a school group come the park today and they raided the snack part of our gift shop during a break in the program.  So, it will be a good evening for our clean-up crew.  We have a special clean-up crew that works nights, 365 days a year, without holidays.  No, I am not talking about the two-legged kind of maintenance crew that comes in every morning early to shine the bathrooms, empty the trash, and get us ready for a new day of visitors.  I’m talking about the two- and four-legged kind, both furry and feathered, who make their appearance as soon as the last employee and last visitor leaves the public parts of the park–the squirrels, raccoons, opossums, crows, and other birds.

I often work farther into the evening than other staff members, so I hear noises that sound like some ghost or spirit is rattling around outside my office.  One night I found the source of all of that after-hours racket.  A raccoon hopped out of the trash can just as I walked past.  I think that we were both scared an equal amount.  Most evenings as I walk up through the parking lot, I will also disturb two or three crows stalking around and looking for treats.

A missed learning opportunity

A missed learning opportunity

Once in a while I eat lunch on our upper deck after a school group like today’s has sat and eaten their snacks or lunches.  That’s when you find out which are the braver songbirds living in the park.  Especially the tufted titmice seem to have no fear of humans when the snacks are really plentiful.  First, they fly to the rail that goes around the deck.  From there if you watch you can see them carefully scoping out the tables vacant of people and with the best looking crumbs under them.  The birds then flit down, grab up some of the good stuff, and head back to the railing to enjoy the treats.  After an hour or so of this diligent work, they can have things pretty well cleaned up.

I don’t mean to imply that I think that this human food is particularly good for our animal friends.  Sometimes I wonder if those jalapeño Cheetos ever keep them up at night like they do me.  Most of the time parks try to limit the amount of access that the animals have to our leftovers.  So, the design of garbage cans continue to evolve, as the animals continue to get smarter.  They can leave an awfully large mess when they really go through a trash can.  The mess shown in the photo below shows just how bad things can get.

Our "Old" Trash Cans

Our "Old" Trash Cans

Our "New" Trash Cans

Our "New" Trash Cans

The raccoons are the most adept at getting into human trash cans.  So, our old design trash cans had a hidden latch that you had to work before you could open the lid.  The problem with these cans was that the latches were so well hidden that humans had to study the little instruction picture carefully and then try it two or three times before getting the hang of it.  The raccoons never did figure it out, but they certainly did love the piles of trash that were left on top of or next to the trash cans by frustrated visitors.  Now I think that the trash can designers finally have the winning design (see below).  No fancy hidden latches, but a fairly heavy lid that covers the entire top of the square can.  If the raccoon tries to open it from on top, then their own weight and the lid’s weight will keep it closed.  A side attack doesn’t work either, because the tops of the cans are too high to be reached from the ground by even the tallest raccoons, and the cans don’t have any lip for the acrobatic raccoons to hang on as they lift the lid.

So, as we phase in these new-design cans, the pickings for those furry folks who are used to dining out on our leftovers will become much slimmer.  That is the reason days like today are a smorgasbord feast for our evening “clean-up crew”.

Margi Jenks, Park Interpreter

Margi Jenks, Park Interpreter

Margi Jenks is working on her “next” career as a park interpreter.  For twenty years she worked as a geologist, making new geologic maps of parts of Oregon, Idaho, and Washington State. Her research interests were volcanoes and their interactions with ancient large lakes.  So, working at the Crater of Diamonds State Park is a natural fit, with its 106 million-year-old volcanic crater containing those fascinating diamonds.


What? No Dinosaurs?

September 22, 2010

As an interpreter at an archeological park, I have my work cut out for me.  I do not have the geology or the beauty of Lake Ouachita, nor do I have Mt. Magazine’s View to draw visitors to my door.  What I do have, is a fabulous resource- an incomparable resource- that never ceases to amaze and astound me.  But, admittedly, it is a resource that only a fraction of a percent of people know and care about.

Parkin Archeological State Park is the location where, in 1541, Hernando de Soto held the first Catholic mass west of the Mississippi.  We are the home of Casqui- the toughest, most feared chief of his time and the chief that de Soto himself mentions about above all others encountered on his 4 year hike though the American southeast.  Pretty cool, huh?  Yeah, maybe if you’re an archeologist or a park interpreter with a few anthropology courses under her belt.

Who doesn't like some good pottery?

Who doesn't like some good pottery?

Then there’s everybody else. I have to work pretty hard to make people interested in this resource.  They are people who are, if truth be told, truly on their way somewhere else but thought this might be a great place to stop and stretch their legs.  I cannot tell you how many people see the “Archeological park” sign on I-40 and exit because they think we’ve got dinosaurs.  When a 9 year old boy thinks he is coming inside to see t-rex only to find that what I have is pottery… that is supreme disappointment.  But what an interpretive opportunity!

Be a Conquistador for a day!

Be a Conquistador for a day!

Here at Parkin, we have an entire collection of Spanish conquistador clothing, armor and weapons. When kids dress like a conquistador, they forget they wanted to see dinosaurs at all.  They put on that helmet and pow! Instantly, they assume the Conquistador pose (you know the one- with one boot clad foot on the mound, hands on hips, hair blowing in the breeze underneath their helmet- don’t act like you’ve never struck this pose before) and from there, they are hooked on Parkin.  Add the conquistador gear to the collection of replica Native American spears, arrows, and atl atls, and we are the coolest thing kids of any age have seen in a while.

Somebody likes history...

Somebody likes history...

We do have other types of visitors besides the interstate exit crowd- visitors who actually know we are about Indian mounds, but are under the impression that they can dig here.  That is another interpretive opportunity completely.  You see, what we have is a finite resource- they just aren’t making Indian mounds anymore.  We cannot let you dig in our mound and expect to have anything left for people to see next week.  What we try and do, diplomatically, firmly, yet with a smile on our face, is tell them about the Federal laws which prohibit such activities and then hand them a Park Informational Brochure about the digging opportunities at Crater of Diamonds State Park.

Then there are the immutable types of visitors.  The rockhounds.  The Aztec enthusiasts.  The people who want to establish a connection between our site, the pyramids of Egypt, and possibly even aliens.  These guys are hard sells.  I had a man last week who was disappointed that we did not have more arrowheads on display.  I tried to explain to him that our pottery in the museum is world renowned, and that is what we choose to focus on.  He just would not let it go.  “Well, Cahokia has points everywhere,” he said.  I tried explaining for 20 minutes that I had visited Cahokia and that I was surprised by their lack of pottery on display (with the exception of pieces that were credited as coming from Arkansas) but this did not seem to phase him.  Education did not work with this guy.  He was disinterested in de Soto.  He could care less about headpots.  He told me he wanted to come back, and fully expected us to “make our museum just like everybody else’s.” Well, in the end all I could wonder was if the Interpreters at the Grand Canyon have problems with people wanting a beach.  Probably not.

A little "hands on" history!

A little "hands on" history!

I do welcome the challenge of educating people like him, and the beauty of the job is that very next person to walk in the door could be a visitor like me.  The “one half of one percent” visitors who love de Soto, are familiar with his trek through Arkansas, and who are yearning for me to tell them more.  I love to share the stories de Soto left with us- how Parkin’s Chief Casqui was the most feared chief in Arkansas, and how rich the culture was here in Arkansas.  I love to show our artifacts and leave people pleasantly surprised about our Arkansas history and heritage.

In short, we get all kinds of visitors here.  I like the people who dress like de Soto.  I look for the chance to educate potential collectors about NAGPRA legislation (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) and why it’s important.  I even relish the opportunity to hear an interesting new twist on the Stargate series and how it applies to Parkin.  But as for the man who wants us to make out museum just like everybody else’s… there’s an old adage that gets me through those experiences with sanity and a smile.  “Never try and teach a pig to sing- it wastes your time and just annoys the pig.”

(Note to reader: Ms. Parker in no way is relating visitors to pigs, though she thinks pigs are wonderful and admirable animals.  The adage was meant to be a funny tagline to an exhaustive experience she recently had with a visitor.)

Mary Anne Parker, Park Interpreter

Mary Anne Parker, Park Interpreter

~Mary Anne Parker has been with Arkansas State Parks since 2005, and as Interpreter at Parkin Archeological State Park since 2006.  Mary Anne’s primary focus at Parkin has been on the African American Experience in the Delta, and she is extremely proud of the growth in community support the park has experienced with the renovation and opening of the Northern Ohio School in 2006. Her other interests and activities include running the Parker Homestead, which she owns and operated with her husband and his parents, and writing grants to further educational opportunities for students attending Arkansas Delta public schools.


Unique Ways to Support your Arkansas State Parks

July 29, 2010

The Coca-Cola Company and its subsidiary, Odwalla have created some exciting ways to support both state and national parks.

Which is your favorite park?

Which is your favorite park?

From the Live Positively Website: “For over 40 years, Coca-Cola has supported America’s national parks. Through our support of individual parks and the National Park Foundation, we’ve helped maintain and rebuild 260 miles of trails so families can be active together while enjoying the great outdoors. In the last 4 years we’ve donated over 4 million dollars to national parks for restoration and renovation.

To demonstrate our commitment to our parks we’re encouraging all families to come out and play this summer. You can also help support America’s parks by simply voting for your favorite. The national or state park with the most votes will receive a $100,000 grant from Coca-Cola. Vote as many times as you like from 7/29 to 8/31″

This could easily be an Arkansas State Park. It’s up to you. They don’t ask for any personal information and you can vote as often and for as many parks as you would like. We just ask that you make them Arkansas State Parks.

You plant up to 5 trees.

You plant up to 5 trees.

From the Plant-A-Tree Website: “For the past 2 years, along with your help, Odwalla has made a commitment to our state parks by donating money to help plant trees. It’s pretty simple. We provide the trees, and you get to decide how much support each state gets.”

You can plant up to 5 trees and for every tree planted for Arkansas, the state parks gets $1.00 toward the purchase and planting of trees. This could be used for youth programs, facility landscaping or reforestation.

For this one they had us create a video to promote the program. Watch it here. Vote For Trees Thanks for supporting Arkansas State Parks.


Connecting Kids’ Minds and Hearts to State Parks…

July 12, 2010

…Announcing the State Park Explorer Program

“Throwing rocks in the river

Is oh so very fun

Rocks splashing in the water

The fun has just begun!

Hiking along the many trails

Are fun things to do here too!

But throwing rocks in the river

Is my favorite thing to do!”

–Poem by Linda S., Arkansas State Parks’ first official State Park Explorer, May 30, 2010

Linda S., first to complete the Arkansas State Park Explorer Program.

Linda S., first to complete the Arkansas State Park Explorer Program.

On May 30, 2010, ten year old Linda S. wrote this poem as one of the activities in her quest to become the first recipient of an Arkansas State Parks Explorer badge and certificate. To earn this honor, she completed nine park-related activities and took an official pledge, promising to love and respect State Parks and help spread the word that conservation is “cool.”

Starting this summer, Linda and other young people across Arkansas are exploring the Natural State in new ways, thanks to the launch of the State Park Explorer program.  Our aim is to help kids connect with State Parks in ways they might not otherwise. The concept is simple: Kids receive an Explorer Field Guide at any State Park, complete a series of activities, take a pledge, and earn a certificate and badge.

What is the State Park Explorer program?

The Arkansas State Parks Explorer is our new youth conservation program. It replaces our former Junior Naturalist and Junior Explorer programs.

Our previous program required attendance at five interpretive programs and completion of a service project. The new program keeps the heart of those requirements, but also goes more in-depth, promoting deeper intellectual and emotional connections with State Parks. It should also foster a greater sense of accomplishment, without being too difficult or lengthy to complete in a short time. Most questions and activities are open ended, allow kids with a range of ages and life experiences to participate. Activities fall into four component areas, listed below. Kids will:

Another Arkansas State Park Explorer!

Another Arkansas State Park Explorer!

Discover what State Parks are (activities related to understanding us and our mission)

These four activities help children begin to explore and understand the identity, mission, and resources of State Parks.

Prepare to be safe (activities related to safety)

These activities help children understand the importance of being proactive about safety in State Parks. They also help promote an awareness of the quality and quantity of safety training our employees receive, in order to best protect resources and serve guests. Finally, they help children approach and interact with employees in a positive, friendly way.

Connect your mind and heart to State Parks (attend interpretive programs)

This section is adapted from the previous “Junior Naturalist” program, requiring attendance at

park interpretive programs. However, it goes beyond asking kids what they learned at a program,

instead asking them to reflect on how they made connections with their minds and hearts.

Share your experience (activities promote thinking beyond self, serving park and others)

These two sections prompt thoughts and actions outside of the self, asking kids to consider helping the resources and other visitors. These activities foster a sense of ownership of the parks, responsibility for actions, and service to others.

Who can become a State Park Explorer?

The program is suggested for kids ages 6-14 who care about nature, history, safety, and FUN!

A group of kids receive their Explorer Certificates at Parkin Archeological State Park.

A group of kids receive their Explorer Certificates at Parkin Archeological State Park.

What is the purpose?

For participants, the purpose is to have fun, gain a sense of accomplishment, get to know the parks’ resources, meet park staff, and make positive memories in State Parks.

For Arkansas State Parks, the goal is to connect young people to Arkansas’s State Park system through a variety of in-park, open-ended, self-initiated activities that are designed to introduce

them to the system and cultivate future generations of park stewards.

Where can Explorer be completed?

The program is designed to be completed at any Arkansas State Park, including historic parks and museums. Activities can be completed at several different locations, or all at one site.

When is the Explorer program available?

The program is available year round. It is designed to be simple enough to be completed in a single

weekend, but also could be stretched out across multiple visits throughout the year.

How much does it cost?

This program is free to all who wish to participate.

How does the Explorer program work? What do I do to get my child started?

• Interested children request and receive Field Guides from park staff.

• They complete all the activities, filling in the yellow circles in the upper right corner of each section as they go. Activities can be completed in any order.

• Upon completion, they present the Field Guide to a park official for review. Most of the questions/activities are open-ended, meaning the responses are not judged for “correctness” but simply for completion.

• Staff sign completed Field Guides and either 1) immediately invite children to take the Explorer pledge and then present them with official Explorer badges and certificates, or 2) schedule a time when they will receive awards as part of a special ceremony (e.g. with other kids at the start of that night’s evening program in the campground). We are able to be flexible depending on that child’s family or group schedule.

• Children fill in their names and addresses on the top (inside cover) portion of the Field Guide. Staff carefully cut that section off and keep it for our records, leaving the majority of the Field Guide for the children to keep as a memento. (Records are kept for the purposes of tracking overall program data and estimating materials numbers for future materials orders.)

Another young park visitor starts the road to appreciating Arkansas natural and historical treasures.

Another young park visitor starts down the road to appreciating Arkansas natural and historical treasures.

Doing our part to walk the walk: Green Practices

Part of our purpose of forging connections between young people and State Parks is to build a more conservation-minded citizenship. Participants naturally progress through a continuum, beginning with curiosity and awareness and moving toward personal stewardship ethics. It is important, then, to let Explorers and their families know we try to practice what we teach. In developing new Explorer materials, we worked hard to reduce our environmental impact:

Badges: The plastic part of our Explorer badges are 100% recycled (90% post industrial and 10% post consumer). They are also made in the USA.

Field Guides & Certificates: The Explorer Field Guides are designed for two-sided printing, with two pieces per sheet using a maximum printing area on the largest paper that fits our press. This means our printing requires very little trimming and is extremely low-waste. The Field Guides are printed on cover stock that is Forest Stewardship Council certified to contain product from well-managed forests, controlled sources and recycled wood or fiber. It is also Green Seal™ certified, containing recycled post-consumer fiber. Our Explorer certificates are printed on the same cardstock as the Field Guides.

For further information:

Contact any Arkansas State Park office.


The Mighty Mississippi River – Up Close

July 7, 2010
Canoeing at Dawn

Canoeing at Dawn

When I was asked if I was interested in going out on the Mississippi River to see the river firsthand, I said absolutely.  When I was told I had to meet in Helena at 4:30AM to make the trip, I didn’t hesitate.  When they said, “by the way, you will be in a canoe” I immediately thought of quiet stillness of a non-motorized vessel, slipping stealthily through the trees.   Okay, so maybe I thought that traveling on the largest river in the nation, dodging towboats and whirlpools in a canoe was a bit edgy, but my curiosity and excitement easily won.

The Mighty Mississippi at canoe level.

The Mighty Mississippi at canoe level.

It turned out that any apprehension I had of being in a small canoe on the open river was unfounded.  We were to be in a 14 person wooden monster and accompanied by two smaller, but not any less impressive, wooden craft.  We gathered our gear and made ready to get to the river.  In a few short minutes we transitioned from sleepy city to full awake forest.  After getting situated at the boat ramp, we sat forth on the gentle currents of the St Francis River at dawn.

Another chance in the making.

Another chance in the making.

Accompanied by the swirls of fish, calls of birds and a few stares from fishermen who weren’t sure what they saw, we made our way downstream the two miles to the mouth of the St. Francis.  Where it emptied into the Mississippi, we skirted over a flooded point that only a few weeks before I had driven my truck on.  The great expanse of the massive river stood before us and its mighty current began to be felt gently on our craft.    “7 mph” was the call from the front of the boat.  “My GPS says we’re doing 7 mph.”  Our paddles were motionless and staring straight ahead gave the illusion we were sitting still.  When we passed a channel marker the full power of the river was evident.  The 12 foot tall buoy was heeled over in the current, its cable so tight that it had to have been dragging the 1 ton concrete anchor on the bottom.  We had seen two already torn loose by the river and drifting in the backwater.

Paddling lazily south we skirted the top of Buck Island and made landing on an immense sandbar.   About 300 yards away, the sand was liberally spotted with nesting Least Terns.  While our hosts made breakfast, my wife and I headed cautiously out to the colony, where these endangered species were swirling and dipping in mating ritual and totally ignoring us.  We cautiously picked our way along the outskirts until I found what I was looking for- the small divot in the sand and a precious egg.  It was this little egg that made the biggest impact to me.  An endangered species, the Least Tern has suffered from loss of nesting habitat.  Its choice of sandy beachfront property along the gulf is always under pressure and its use of sandbars along our inland rivers has been mitigated by regular releases of water from dams.  On the Mississippi the tern colony was at the mercy of Mother Nature not to cause a rise in the river and wash the fragile nests away.  But even this precarious niche was threatened by man, for if the river dropped too low the locals could ride this same sand with four wheelers.

Crossing at Helena.

Crossing at Helena.

We ate, cleaned up and proceeded back onto the river.  Our guide pointed us to the opposite shore, and we paddled across the mile wide river.  After sampling the east side of the river we headed back across the Mississippi, dodging a tow boat as we slipped into Helena harbor.  Our adventure was over for today, but the enduring memories of the experience will go on for a lifetime.

John Morrow, Park Superintendent (left)

John Morrow, Park Superintendent (left)

John Morrow began work at Mississippi River State Park as the first superintendent for the park in February 2009.  He has worked for Arkansas State Parks since 2000.   He has graduated from the Park Superintendent Training Program, is a Certified Heritage Interpreter, Certified Interpretive Trainer as well as a First Responder and SAR Tech II.  He likes spending time with his children and wife, pictured here, who took these photos.

Special thanks to Quapaw Canoe Company of Helena Arkansas.  You can have this same adventure and more by contacting them at www.island63.com.


Swallowtails in my Heart

June 4, 2010

“What is your favorite butterfly?” I am asked that question by both children and adults. So many of our butterflies are beautiful in both color and grace, so it can be difficult to pick just one to say its your “favorite.” Sometimes a favorite butterfly has a deeper, more personal meaning.

Black Swallowtail Caterpillar

Black Swallowtail Caterpillar

Maybe it’s just this time of year when the butterflies and wildflowers really begin to thrive, or maybe I’m just feeling sentimental, but when I see a swallowtail, I still feel like a little kid. My first butterfly was a black swallowtail, so for this and other reasons, it remains my personal favorite. Sorry, my beloved Diana fritillary, you are somewhat second when it comes to being my first love.

Balck Swallowtail Butterfly

Black Swallowtail Butterfly

My love of butterflies began with a fifth-grade homework assignment. I am still in contact with my teacher. To a little kid, a caterpillar tucked into an empty pickle jar with a bunch of unidentified leaves wasn’t an epiphany until the black swallowtail emerged eight months later. Then, as my father can corroborate, I was hooked.

As I watch our swallowtails flit through the air, I do look at them with the eyes of an educated adult, but I still have a sense of awe and wonder. The swallowtails living in Arkansas are such amazing creatures, and you can enjoy them in both your yard and in our state parks.

Mud-puddling Zebras and Pipevine Swallowtails

Mud-puddling Zebras and Pipevine Swallowtails

Swallowtails on the wing in May include black, pipevine, zebra, Eastern tiger, spicebush, and giant swallowtails. Since more people are adding both nectar and host plants to their home gardens, more people are looking and attracting these insects. One of the best parts of my job is to give someone advice one year, and then listen to their success stories in the following years.

Perhaps one of the best examples of attempting to live in harmony with butterflies is the gardener who puts up with black swallowtail caterpillars on their parsley, dill, and fennel. To begin life resembling a bird dropping assures some demise. If only they started life as their mature yellow-green color, and if only they wouldn’t chow down on the same leaves we want to eat so rapidly! For this reason, I grow Queen Anne’s lace, just in case I need to transfer caterpillars.

Dark Form Female Tiger Swallowtail

Dark Form Female Tiger Swallowtail

More gardeners are becoming interested in growing Dutchman’s pipevine for pipevine swallowtails. This shade plant contains chemicals that once ingested, help defend both caterpillar and adult from hungry predators. Pipevine swallowtails are often the first swallowtail to emerge in spring, and have multiple generations in one year. Their iridescence is unmatched in the sunlight.

The tails of zebra swallowtails are longer in the summer form than the spring form, and both are master of dizzying flight maneuvers.

To study one or all of the swallowtails is a lifetime of fun in itself. For me, seeing a large butterfly with tails always makes my day a little brighter.

Just this week, I spent a mere 30 minutes standing in one spot on Will Apple’s Road Trail at Mount Magazine State Park, and saw a flurry of activity. A pipevine swallowtail unsuccessfully attempted to court a red-spotted purple. Talk about mistaken identity! A female giant swallowtail was flitting from hop tree to hop tree (aka wafer ash), searching for a suitable place to lay eggs. A dark-form female tiger swallowtail flew into the courtship of the other two black butterflies and disrupted them. A satyr flew by my head. I flushed a red-banded hairstreak from the ground. A fresh silver-spotted skipper was basking in the sunlight near its host plant, a black locust almost in fragrant full bloom. The pipevine swallowtail gave up the courtship and flew away. The red-spotted purple finally alighted on a cherry tree and basked in a sliver of sunlight. Everyone benefits by immersing themselves in a natural setting such as this. It frees the heart and mind.

One of the amazing aspects of nature is the symbiotic relationship between wildflowers and their butterfly pollinators. Later this May, male Diana fritillaries emerge from their chrysalises, with females following approximately three weeks later. This is well synchronized with the blooming of butterfly weed, purple coneflower, bee balm, and several others.

Kids really enjoy the Mount Magazine Butterfly Festival!

Kids really enjoy the Mount Magazine Butterfly Festival!

Arkansas has many butterfly “hot spots,” and special events designed to help visitors enjoy them more. The Mount Magazine Butterfly Festival, coming up June 25-26, is dedicated to creating awareness of butterflies in their natural habitat and their importance as pollinators. The weekend is full of programs, hikes, children’s games and crafts, a live arthropod zoo, garden tours, and two concerts. It is a great way for families to spend a weekend together.

I think I’ll head outside and check my parsley (again) for black swallowtail caterpillars. I’m still a little kid at heart who would much rather be outside.

Lori Spencer, Certified Heritage Interpreter

Lori Spencer, Certified Heritage Interpreter

Lori Spencer is the author of Arkansas Butterflies and Moths, and has won multiple awards for volunteer work at Mount Magazine State Park and throughout Arkansas. Since she moved to Arkansas in 1992, Lori has been an active voice for creating awareness about Arkansas’s rich butterfly heritage and their conservation needs. She has been associated with the Mount Magazine Butterfly Festival since its inception in 1997. She volunteers for four different organizations, including Logan County Master Gardeners, the Mount Magazine Action Group, and the National Association for Interpretation, and is both the Arkansas and Louisiana coordinator for the Butterflies and Moths of North America website. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Central College in Pella, Iowa, and a master’s degree in entomology from the University of Arkansas. She is both a Certified Heritage Interpreter and Certified Interpretive Guide. She received a national conservation award by the Daughters of the American Revolution recently.


Planting Seeds

May 17, 2010

Nothing in their outward appearance indicated they were killers.  They looked like normal well-adjusted boys, and then came the chilling testimonial.  One of the cherub-faced youth described the turtle and how they had used a hammer to bash in its shell.  They still recalled the blood in vivid detail. Obviously, if ever a group of kids could benefit from an interpretive program on Box Turtles, it was here before me.  I was no longer preaching to the choir.  They were singing from a very different sheet of music.  They were singing a troubling song.

Here was my chance to make an impact.  I would finish this interpretive program and these turtle killers would see the error of their deviant ways.   I just stared for a moment and proceeded with my turtle program.  “This is the perfect program for this bunch,” I thought.  What a coincidence that the turtle murder had taken place just a week before.  “How sad,” I said, trying to blunt the attention they had drawn to themselves with their grizzly confession.

After the turtle fact section of my program, I moved on to the interpretive heart of what I had to say.  I reached for my copy of The Grapes of Wrath and turned to chapter three.  “If this doesn’t break the spirit of the turtle killers, nothing will,” I thought.   Steinbeck interprets human nature and frames the choice between good and evil better than anyone.  The lady in the story swerved to miss the turtle, but the redneck swerved to hit the turtle.

I glance at the turtle killers as I read the passage where the turtle is spun like a tiddily-wink.  No recognition of guilt is visible in their faces.  No sign that they have even made the connection between this story and their own action.

The turtle flipped upright and moved on.   I read, “The wild oat head fell out and three of the spearhead seeds stuck in the ground.  And as the turtle crawled on down the embankment, its shell dragged dirt over the seeds.”

I couldn’t tell that we had done much good with the rehabilitation of the turtle killers during the week.  No remorse would be forthcoming.  This troubled me.  Maybe it shouldn’t have.  Most of the time we offer programs for non-turtle killers.  The people who voluntarily participate in interpretive programs are the people who need them the least.  Have you ever noticed that the smartest people are always hanging around in the library or bookstore?  The turtle killers are just little boys.  I was a little boy once and did some pretty cruel things to animals myself.  I turned out all right.  Maybe the turtle killers will too.  Steinbeck’s seeds never came up during the week of our Day Camp, but I still have hope.  They may germinate some day.

Box turtles are on the move all over Arkansas

Box turtles are on the move all over Arkansas

Brad Holleman, Park Interpreter

Brad Holleman, Park Interpreter

Brad Holleman has been the park interpreter at Queen Wilhelmina State Park since 1991. He started his career in 1983 as a seasonal interpreter at Lake Ouachita State Park andLake Fort Smith State Park. In 1984 he received a Bachelor of Science in Wildlife Management from Arkansas Tech University. Brad worked as an interpreter at Lake Catherine State Park from 1984-89 and then at Petit Jean State Park from 1989-91. He is a member of the National Association for Interpretation and is a Certified Heritage Interpreter. He is also active with the Talimena Scenic Drive Association and on the Board of Advisors with the Ouachita Mountains Biological Station.


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