Memorial Day Message

May 27, 2010

This special installment of the Arkansas State Park Blog serves as a reminder of what Memorial Day is all about. Although originally designated as a remembrance of those who have given the ultimate sacrifice in service to our country, it is also a time that we may want to reflect on other uniformed men and women who have sacrificed themselves and put themselves in harms way to protect us. Please do what you can to make their jobs easier this weekend. Be careful and say a little thank you to those military and other uniformed people who do so much for us every day. Thank you.

It is with a heavy heart that I submit this installment of the State Parks blog. As a Commissioned Officer with Arkansas State Parks, and as a citizen of this great state, I share the burden of losing two West Memphis police officers to a senseless act of violence while carrying out a routine traffic stop on Interstate 40 last week. Many across the nation share in our grief and question why these types of things happen. Officers traveled from New York, Illinois, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee, Texas, Oklahoma, and all over the state of Arkansas to come and pay tribute to men who were just doing their jobs, trying to uphold the law and keep the peace. The funeral was packed with literally hundreds of officers who make the same “routine” traffic stops every day, and who will continue to do it over and over again after they left the memorial service. I was lucky enough to attend with other representatives of the Arkansas State Parks Rangers, and the fellowship and brotherhood experienced there in West Memphis will be something I will never forget.

Arkansas State Park Rangers wear many hats.

Arkansas State Park Rangers wear many hats.

Many people I meet have no idea that Arkansas State Parks have law enforcement officers. They wonder out loud what could we possibly have to deal with at the State Park? I have other law enforcement friends that ask me “Doesn’t it make you angry that people think you guys never do anything?” No- in fact, I believe the exact opposite.

Many Arkansas State Park Rangers are fully trained in Search and Rescue techniques.

Many Arkansas State Park Rangers are fully trained in Search and Rescue techniques.

I think the fact that the public wonder “Why in a place as safe as a State Park we would need officers?” is a testament to all of my brother and sister rangers throughout the system. The Rangers you happen to see on your camping trip, and more often than not the Rangers you do not see, are on a continual mission to keep our parks safe, educational, and enjoyable. It is not because “we have nothing to do.” It is because of all the work required of Rangers every day that State Parks are so safe.

Park Rangers are there to serve and assist park visitors.

Park Rangers are there to serve and assist park visitors.

The day to day lives of Park Rangers involve all kinds of various tasks- from cleaning up ice storm damage, to checking on the welfare of local citizens. Rangers help children learn how to fish and tell Grandpas the location of the best secret fishing hole on the lake. Other Ranger tasks include performing search and rescue operations in impenetrable forested and mountainous areas, and helping register campers for their ultimate vacation spot. On occasion, Rangers are called upon to aid people who are in the midst of a medical emergency or to help locate the parents of a child who has wandered a little too far away from their campsite. We also get a lot of directions requests (particularly to the best restaurants in the area), and program time and location questions.

Some Arkansas State Park Rangers are also trained park interpreters.

Some Arkansas State Park Rangers are also trained park interpreters.

Law Enforcement Officers are a thankless bunch, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. Because of our “fade into the background” status, I won’t call any officers by name when mentioning a few heroes of our Department. We have Rangers who respond to plane crashes. We have Rangers who have searched for days on end in freezing conditions to help find a missing senior citizen who had wandered away from her car two counties away from their park. We have Rangers who have administered life saving medical care to boating accident victims and Rangers who have stepped up to protect an endangered child. I am happy to call these officers brothers and proud to line up next to them every day.

I am a relatively new officer with the Department, and have already received 16 weeks of law enforcement training. All of our officers are required to train in first aid, CPR, and first responder courses. We are also trained in search and rescue, DWI enforcement, and firearms proficiency. It is our goal to be well trained ambassadors of Arkansas State Parks who will make each and every visitor’s experience pleasant and safe. I am proud to serve my park, my community and my state as a State Park Law Enforcement Officer, and am equally proud to line up beside my fellow Rangers to protect and serve. We will do our best to never forget the legacies of the fallen West Memphis Officers, and in their spirit of service will continue to make your local Arkansas State Parks safe.

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. She recently graduated the Arkansas Law Enforcement Training Academy and is now an Arkansas State Parks’ Commissioned Law Enforcement Officer. Mary Anne’s other interests and activities include running the Parker Homestead, which she owns and operates with her husband and his parents, and writing grants to further educational opportunities for students attending Arkansas Delta public schools.


Plant a tree in Arkansas!

May 25, 2010
Vote for Arkansas

Vote for Arkansas

You can vote for Arkansas to receive trees donated by Odwalla’s Plant a Tree program!  Simply log onto the Plant-A-Tree Web site and enter your email address. You can only vote once, so please encourage your friends and family to take part in this event. You can even link it on your Facebook and Twitter accounts.

1 vote = $1 for trees. Odwalla is donating a total of  $200,000 towards the purchase of trees for America’s State Parks.  This is a great opportunity to help the environment as well as your local community so take a minute or two of your time today and vote for Arkansas. Below is a reminder of just what trees mean to Arkansas State Parks!

We don’t have a code in our park guide so we are only able to vote once per person. Now just Vote for Arkansas! Thanks!


Sharing the Trails with Snakes

May 24, 2010

I have learned that any time I hike a trail, and especially during warm weather, it’s always a good idea to watch where I step.  Not only does this prevent tripping over a rock or root or slipping on a wet spot, but also can help to avoid an unpleasant encounter with one of nature’s least liked wild creatures.  In Arkansas, snakes can be encountered just about anywhere, but it’s a good idea to be extra cautious when out in the woods, in a swampy-looking area, or walking around at night.

At Petit Jean State Park, more than 20 miles of hiking trails beckon park visitors to explore the area’s scenic beauty.  But people aren’t the only ones who may be out on the trails during the warmer months.  Peacefully sharing the trails with wildlife, including snakes and other reptiles, is what hikers are encouraged to do, for the safety of both the people and the animals.  36 different species of snakes are naturally found in Arkansas, and I have personally observed many of them on Petit Jean Mountain.  Fortunately, only 6 of the 36 are venomous.  Snakes I have seen recently include an Eastern hognose snake, a Western ribbon snake, a rough green snake, a ringneck snake and a redbelly snake.

A non-venomous snake attempting to hide from people.

A non-venomous snake attempting to hide from people.

Contrary to what some folks may believe, snakes don’t lurk around on woodland paths just waiting for an unsuspecting human to come along so that they can bite him or her.  A snake may be stalking its natural prey or searching for a mate or a good hiding place, but an encounter with a person is likely to be accidental (unless that person is out hunting for snakes).  A good general rule about snakes is that if you leave them alone, they will probably leave you alone.  Snakes tend to be afraid of people and will often try to get away if given a chance.  When a snake bite does occur, it is often because someone was trying to kill or capture a venomous snake, or accidentally stepped on it or otherwise got close enough to make the snake feel threatened.

To help protect yourself while hiking a trail, keep in mind that snakes are often well camouflaged – that is, they tend to blend in well with their environment.  For example, the venomous  and very common copperhead is usually light brown or grayish in color with a pattern of darker brown, hourglass-shaped cross bands.  This pattern of coloration can make this snake seem nearly invisible at times, especially when it is sitting on brown leaves.  I have come close to stepping on copperheads or other snakes  myself, even though I am used to watching out for them (but the only times I have been bitten were while I was either handling or attempting to handle non-venomous  snakes).  Being alert and watching where you place your hands and feet is your best line of defense.  Wearing sturdy boots or shoes that cover your ankles can also be helpful.

Rat snakes are sometimes used to educate park visitors.

Rat snakes are sometimes used to educate park visitors.

We often receive requests for interpretive programs on snakes at Petit Jean State Park, so if you would like to find out more about snakes of Arkansas, you might want to inquire if a snake presentation is scheduled during your next visit to the park.  Or, you can stop by the park’s visitor center and see if an interpreter is available to answer your snake questions.

Snake programs for all Arkansas State Parks can be found on our online Calendar of Events.

Rachel Engebrecht, Park Interpreter

Rachel Engebrecht, Park Interpreter

Rachel is a native Arkansan and a graduate of Ouachita Baptist University, with a Bachelor of Science in biology.  Her interpretive experience includes work as a seasonal interpreter at Lake Dardanelle State Park, 1997 -1999, and as a full-time interpreter at Crater of Diamonds State Park, 2003 – 2007.   She has been a full-time interpreter at Petit Jean State Park since September of 2007.  Rachel is a member of the National Association for Interpretation and became a Certified Heritage Interpreter in 2009.  “One of my favorite things I do in my job is helping park visitors discover new ways to enjoy and learn from nature.”


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.


It’s School Group Season!

May 6, 2010

As a former public school teacher, one of my favorite services we provide at your Arkansas State Parks is programs for local school groups.  I remember how hard it was trying to connect my students to the natural world in the sterile environment of a classroom.  Most of our parks have programs specifically designed for school groups that are aligned with the Arkansas K-12 frameworks, and some even have programs aligned with the Head Start Domains and NAEYC Accreditation Criteria.  Each park interprets topics based on their location and mission statement.  So there are lots of topics to choose from.  Here at Village Creek State Park we concentrate on the Arkansas Natural Division known as Crowley’s Ridge including its geologic and cultural history and unique ecosystems.  We also have programs on conservation and park preservation and the Trail of Tears.  Most of the parks can accommodate School Groups throughout the year, but May always seems to be School Group season.

A group of students enjoys hands-on learning with a park interpreter.

A group of students enjoys hands-on learning with a park interpreter.

Students can get a better understanding of the Trail of Tears when they can actually walk part of it.

Students can get a better understanding of the Trail of Tears when they can actually walk part of it.

There is just something about helping teachers connect the children of our community with this wonderful state and all its wonderful history, geology, past cultures, and of course nature.  Imagine teaching your students about Andrew Jackson and the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and then having the opportunity to take those students on a hike along part of one of the roads that was used to take members of the Native American nations affected to Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma.)  Here at Village Creek State Park students can more easily imagine some of the hardships endured by members of the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Muscogee (Creek), and Cherokee Nations who traveled along this portion of the Trail of Tears when they can hear the buzz of mosquitoes who no longer carry malaria, or when they are tired or hot after only walking a mile and we remind them that during the Trail of Tears detachments averaged 10 miles a day and depending on the detachment they may or may not have had enough food to eat, or been dressed appropriately for the weather not to mention individuals that were suffering from diseases caused by the unsanitary conditions they endured in the internment camps before they even left their homelands or that they may have contracted along the journey such as cholera or dysentery.

Close-up of a spider seen along the Big Ben Trail seen on a hike.

Close-up of a spider seen along the Big Ben Trail seen on a hike,

Allowing students to experience the natural world through a hike is a great way to get them to explore how different parts of an ecosystem depend on each other in order for the entire ecosystem to function properly.  On lucky days we catch a glimpse of some of our native wildlife such as insects, spiders, birds, skinks, frogs, and occasionally even a white-tailed deer, which makes the experience even more memorable for the students.

Somethimes we get a special treat that we can share with school groups likke this barn swallow nest at the visitor center.

Somethimes we get a special treat that we can share with school groups like this barn swallow nest at the visitor center.

The formation of Crowley’s Ridge was always a tough subject for me to convey to my students when I was teaching.  Since it was formed by sedimentation and erosion and has a foundation of only clay, sand and gravel, unlike the other ridges or mountains in Arkansas that have bedrock foundations and were formed as a result of uplift and erosion.  Here at Village Creek State Park I can actually show students the four layers of Crowley’s Ridge, and let the children see for themselves the oceanic clay layers while we discuss the lignite coal and fossil imprints of primitive plants found in the Clay II layer and the fossilized shark’s teeth, string ray spines, and such found in the Clay I layer.  The students can also see for themselves how the sand and gravel layer keeps our creek crystal clear, and hopefully make the connection that they would be an excellent source of fresh water for the Native Americans who originally inhabited this part of Arkansas, and for the first European settlers that came to Arkansas before it was a state.  Students can also visually see just how erosive the loess top soil is when they see the steep ravines found along the trails.

Tara Gillanders, Park Interpreter

Tara Gillanders, Park Interpreter

Raised in Kingsville, TX, Tara’s family moved to Jonesboro, AR in the mid 1980s where she graduated from high school and earned a bachelor’s degree in science education from Arkansas State University.  Tara taught high school science for 3 years before finding out about the profession of interpretation.  She has been the park interpreter at Village Creek State Park since 2008. “I cannot imagine a more fulfilling job.  What other profession allows you to connect people to the things you are passionate about?”