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.



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.