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.

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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.


Old-fashioned Community Energy

April 8, 2010

Volunteer Days at the Ozark Folk Center

Volunteer Days is a great time to try out new food ideas, like kettle corn.

Volunteer Days is a great time to try out new food ideas, like kettle corn.

The Ozarks is a unique and special place. Well-known for their beauty, these hills are also known for being challenging to live in or travel through. The weather here is a drama queen, tempestuous thundering tantrums one hour – sunshine and flowers the next.

In many ways living in the Ozarks is a balancing act. The abundant water in lakes, streams and falling rain is balanced by muddy, destructive flooding waters. The wild foods, natural fruits, nuts, greens and berries growing with wild abandon are counter-weighted by the challenges of trucking food-stuffs in to hill country supermarkets.

One thing about the Ozarks that has no downside is the people. On the whole, whether native to this land or drawn to it, the people who live in the Ozark Mountains are self-sufficient, creative and caring.

Volunteer and jeweler Linda Widmer paints the trim on the Doll  Shop windows.

Volunteer and jeweler Linda Widmer paints the trim on the Doll Shop windows.

Perhaps because there are relatively few people, everyone is appreciated for their qualities. Now, that doesn’t mean that everybody likes each other or that gossip isn’t the town’s main entertainment, but it does mean that whether you like your neighbor or not, you’ll still go help him raise his barn and bring food to the potluck.

The Ozark Folk Center is an Arkansas State Park that was founded to celebrate and preserve this unique spirit. Where other parks have acres of natural beauty, we have uniquely creative people willing to share their music and crafts. A seasonal park, we don’t officially open until April 16. Starting about mid-March though, we get lots of calls. People are starting to stir in the hills. People want to get out and see people.

Ozark Folk Center volunteer coordinator Kathy Hair encourages volunteers Wayne and Charlotte Russell as they scrub the Spinning and Weaving Shop windows.

Ozark Folk Center volunteer coordinator Kathy Hair encourages volunteers Wayne and Charlotte Russell as they scrub the Spinning and Weaving Shop windows.

Bringing together the barn-raising spirit, spring fever and the spring cleaning urge, we started Volunteer Days at the Ozark Folk Center Craft Village in 2008. This year’s days are April 13 and 14. We invite the public from far and wide to come help us put the finishing touch on our park before we open. We’ve had folks from Colorado, Maryland, Oregon and Louisiana chipping in to scrub walls, paint window and weed gardens right next to the neighbors from down the street.

Some of the projects are planned, like scrubbing the outside of every window in the village, hanging the pictures in the Administration hallway or planting the garden around the Shannon Cabin. Others take stock of volunteer’s strengths like painting shop signs or rebuilding cabin doors. Some volunteers run drinks, tools and messages to other helpers. Musicians who want to practice and warm up their acts after the long winter can perform on the outdoor stage and add energy to the event.

Ozark Folk Center’s Group Sales Manager Jimmie Edwards shares comments with KFFB’s General Manager Bob Connell.

Ozark Folk Center’s Group Sales Manager Jimmie Edwards shares comments with KFFB’s General Manager Bob Connell.

The whole community gets involved in the volunteer cleanup days. Local radio station KFFB has done a remote live broadcast from the event for the last two years and fed the volunteers pizza and soda pop for lunch. In 2009 it seemed like everyone was thanking KFFB’s Bob Connell for his great program during that winter’s ice storm. He kept his station on the air and connecting people during the storm that devastated the areas forests and left many people without electricity for weeks. This year, Centennial Bank is providing lunch on the 13th and of course, people bring cookies, salads and other treats for potluck. There’s always more food than people, so if you’re thinking of driving up to Mountain View for the event, don’t worry about bringing food with you.

The Ozark Folk Center isn’t open during this event, we open officially April 16th. So if you’re looking for top quality music shows and crafters taking the time to demonstrate their crafts, wait a few more days. But if you want to come be a part of the community spirit that the Center was founded to preserve and perpetuate, join us on April 13th and 14th for Volunteer Days.

Jeanette Larson, Crafts Director

Jeanette Larson, Crafts Director

Jeanette Larson has been a fiber artist all her life, weaving the threads of her art through her careers in journalism and management. In 2006 the fates conspired to send her to the Mountain View area and settle her in her niche as Craft Director at the Ozark Folk Center, where her passion for handwork and the people who use their hands to create has brought new life to the old ways.


Musings of a Westerner on the Natural State

March 1, 2010

I moved to Arkansas in March last year to take the position of park interpreter at the Crater of Diamonds State Park.  Until that time I had spent most of the previous twenty years living in the Pacific Northwest, in particular Idaho, Nevada, and Oregon.  In my life I have moved around quite a bit, living in 13 states if I include Arkansas.  Moving to different parts of the country is a bit like visiting a foreign country, even though we supposedly all speak the same language and have the same general culture.  So, I have had fun over of the last year getting to know Arkansas’ countryside and cultural idiosyncrasies.

The mountains of Arkansas are an unexpected pleasure of our out-of-state visitors.

The mountains of Arkansas are an unexpected pleasure of our out-of-state visitors.

I will admit that before moving to Arkansas I knew very little about the Natural State.  I grew up in central Illinois and my family travelled fairly widely.  However, the only family visit to Arkansas was a spring break spent in Hot Springs, and those memories were very faint.  Somehow, Arkansas never came up when people talked about beautiful places to visit.  This surprises me now, because Arkansas really is one of the most beautiful places that I have lived.  It doesn’t have the dramatic beauty of the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and the Big Sky Country of Montana and Idaho.  It isn’t as lush as the Pacific coasts of Oregon and Washington.  And it doesn’t have the dramatic canyons of Arizona and Utah.  Instead, it has a gentle and comfortable kind of beauty with panoramas of blue hills seen from its high points, like Mt. Magazine and Queen Wilhelmina State Parks.

Beautiful hardwood and pine forests make for great hiking throughout "The Natural State."

Beautiful hardwood and pine forests make for great hiking throughout "The Natural State."

I particularly love the open woodlands with their mix of hardwoods and pines.  In the summer they embrace like a lovely green room, and in the winter, after the leaves fall, the horizon returns with red sunrises and sunsets glimpsed through the black trunks of trees. In the spring the woods are full of white and rose clouds from the blooming dogwoods and redbuds.  Each season seems to bring some new beauty to be admired.

One of the fun things about living in different places is appreciating the little cultural differences.  Probably the local people would be surprised at the things that I find unusual.  For example, I have never lived anywhere that campers routinely pack fans and air conditioners in addition to their tents and outdoor stoves.  But, having now lived through the warm and humid summer nights, I understand why fans are standard camping equipment items.  Also, I was driving home late one evening last summer and noticed that my car windows were fogging up.  Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the condensation was on the outside of my car windows, and even though it wasn’t raining I had to run the wipers to clear my windows.

As I have traveled around I have also noticed that Arkansans seem to love their lawns. They have the biggest expanses of beautiful green grass carpets of anywhere I have lived.  In the West most lawns are only green if they are watered regularly, so with water in short supply, the lawns are usually small.  When I moved to Portland, OR, a place that most people in the rest of the country think of as the epitome of greenness, I was amazed when all the lawns were left to turn brown.  Perennial water shortages in the late summer, with the resulting high water bills to water their lawns, mean that most lawns are left to dry up.  But, in Arkansas, with higher rainfalls and lots of riding lawn mowers, the lawns expand to cover acres, dotted with beautiful pine trees.

Diamonds, Mountains and Wetlands add to the wonderful diversity of Arkansas.

Diamonds, Mountains and Wetlands add to the wonderful diversity of Arkansas.

Finally, even some things that are practical and obvious to the resident can catch the eye of the newcomer.  One of my favorites is the open-sided steel buildings I see in the local cemeteries.  It is an obvious thing to provide permanent shade for graveside services and extremely practical given the summer temperatures and humidity here, but I just never have seen it in other states.  I also love the small cemeteries that I encounter as I come around curves on the winding Arkansan byways, some family cemeteries but most left from an era when the small towns were close together.

I am looking forward to continuing my exploration of Arkansas.  I have not yet visited the Ozarks or the Mississippi Delta.  When I think of the term “Natural State”, it is usually defined as “unspoiled”.  However, I have come to a different view—to me the Natural State is beautiful because it is unembellished and unpretentious, so that its native beauty is completely visible.

Margi Jenks, Park Interpreter

Margi Jenks, Park Interpreter

Margi Jenks is a recent convert to working 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.


Petit Jean State Park: A Place Where You Can Go Home Again

February 18, 2010

“Experiencing the changes in life over the years has meant more to me than simple aging.  It has meant watching the landscape and the world become more tame, drab, and developed.  Human life and wildlife are both losing their world.”   – Barbara Kerr

I have spent more than a few hours in January reviewing Ken Burns’ recent documentary The National Parks: America’s Best Idea and have learned a great deal from it, both factually and emotionally.  The documentary has helped me to piece together some scattered thoughts.

A map was drawn up by the National Park Service of Petit Jean.

A map was drawn up by the National Park Service of Petit Jean.

I found it interesting, even before I ever served as a park interpreter at Petit Jean, that this state park has ties, and some similarities, to national parks: We have a lodge named for the first Park Service Director, Stephen Mather, who visited here in the 1920s to help strengthen a new Conference of State Parks. Our country doctor/park founder, T.W. Hardison, originally had the national park idea in mind when he first met with Mather.  They would meet again, and Hardison would come to know Mather as a friend and fellow conservationist.  Petit Jean State Park has a set of archived park plans (on display at the visitor center) drawn up by the National Park Service during the time of the Civilian Conservation Corps – another tie.  The idea of setting this beautiful, rugged area aside to be conserved for future generations parallels the notion that began the national parks.  It follows the same pattern.  As our Executive Director of Arkansas Parks and Tourism, Richard Davies, noted in a talk back in December, “Our state parks are the ‘child’ of national parks.”  It’s a pretty accurate metaphor.

Though I believed I knew the answer, I have asked myself on several occasions recently, “Why do I like parks so much?”  And the more I think about it, the deeper the answers run.  There are volumes.

One reason might be summed up by the title of a Thomas Wolfe novel, You Can’t Go Home Again.  Wolfe’s title refers to change.  In time, change may alter any place – even home, or maybe especially home – to a point that it is no longer the same place.  It’s not home as you knew it anymore.  You can’t go there anymore.  The sentence/title strikes a chord with me because it is so true.  But parks are, by nature, change-resistant.  The idea is to let them remain “home” to the people who visit them generation after generation.  A person who made the hike to Cedar Falls fifty years ago can return today, make the hike, and little has changed.  Somewhere, deep down, that must be a source of inspiration and perhaps a source of great relief as well.

Hiking the trails at Petit Jean State Park is timeless.

Hiking the trails at Petit Jean State Park is timeless.

When I was eight years old, a clever second-grader, I made one of my first organized hikes – a very special one.  It was not in a park, but it was in a place very much like a park – a natural area with an expansive reach and an interesting history.  Four generations of my family had just come back from a service at a small country church.  My grandmother provided music at the church’s piano.  There were my younger sister and myself, our parents, my father’s parents, and my father’s mother’s parents.  From my great-grandparents’ old country house, we all made an afternoon walk up our home stream, the North Fork of Ozan Creek.  This old creek sliced through the Gulf Coastal Plain of southwest Arkansas, revealing colorful rounded stones washed away from conglomerate outcrops and mounds of slate-blue clay the local people called “Indian soap.”  The creek’s water was clear and churned down riffles into long pools that again became lively riffles.  Caddo burial mounds dotted the countryside along the creek, and artifacts from that culture turned up everywhere.

We hiked for several miles that afternoon, on a pretty well-established trail, and for the first time I got to see places that would become an embedded part of my early life.  There was one spring, in particular, that flowed down a clay embankment, leaving multi-hued mineral patterns on a cusp that faced a small pool which emptied into the creek.  My buddies and I would later dub it “Buffalo Spring” because of its brown colors.  The trail builders, whoever they may have been, created bench paths that cut midway along the sides of the bluffs some thirty feet up over the creek.  Hardwood and pine canopied the creek corridor, and down along the creek bed were springs and more springs, feeder streams, canebrakes, and openings into fields.  Our final destination that day was a waterfall, about five feet high and twenty feet across, with a darn good swimming hole washed out beneath it.  And I found my eight-year-old self in love with a place.

Late that afternoon, I settled in warm by the fireplace at my great-grandparents’ house, thinking about it all.  I hoped that we would all do the hike again next week.  But it didn’t happen.  Then I wished that we would do the hike together again later on.  But time passed, and changes came.  My great-grandparents and grandparents grew older, my parents grew busier, and that group of eight would never make the hike to the waterfall again.  For the four generations, it turned out to be a one-time experience.  Later in my childhood, though, I became as intimately familiar with the Ozan and its surroundings as I was with each of those members of my own family.  Three other boy companions lived just down the road.  We kept the Ozan Creek company for years and, looking back, were pretty good caretakers.

We witnessed the dynamics of the stream, knew the scents and sounds and responses to seasons.  Spring rains brought the big, swift, brown water out of the banks.  When the creek settled down, expansive new rock bars appeared, newly washed out swimming holes were discovered, while other pools were filled in with stone and gravel.  One swimming hole, the flood-scoured floor newly-cleared to reveal a large deposit of blue clay, became known to local people as the “Blue Hole” or “Clay Bottom.”  I was baptized in that swimming hole one summer Sunday afternoon.  Afterwards, my buddies threw me off the diving bank and “re-baptized” me.  Summer droughts brought shallow pools laced with algae; riffles turned to dry rock.  Long-ear sunfish made nests in shallows and dutifully defended them.  Small chain pickerel darted beneath grassy banks.  There were cottonmouths all along the creek, a species that I would later learn defines a healthy watershed – but if you want to stay healthy, don’t let them get their fangs into you.

As we grew older, our territory expanded.  A few miles downstream, the Ozan ran into a wetland.  There was a beaver dam the length of a football field, and we learned of old natural caves that had been slowly eroded into the sandstone hills not far from the beaver pond.  Waterfowl flew in by hundreds.  One year, on my best friend’s birthday, we were set free to hike across the bottoms.  His mother picked us up at a pre-determined spot late that afternoon.  It was an unforgettable day.

By the time I was a senior in high school, “progress” was afoot, and there were plans for the North Fork of Ozan Creek.  Change was on its way.  The USDA Soil Conservation Service was in the final stages of building “watershed dams” on many of the streams that flowed into the rich farmland miles downstream – this theoretically to control flooding and to save crops.  I vividly remember hiking upstream one spring day and being wide-eyed to find dozers and earth movers beginning the process of building a huge earthen dam across the Ozan – a quarter-mile of dirt, dust and noise.  Once the dam was completed, the entirety of water in the creek was funneled down a chamber and fed through a pipe about three and one-half feet in diameter.  Only the heated top-water of the new reservoir made it to the other side of the dam.  On a summer day, the water that fed from the dam into the old creek bed was as warm as bathwater to the touch.  And, as several years passed, the living, changing creek that I had known for so long all but vanished.  Only a withered remnant remained, slowly filling with soil and fallen trees.  The Ozan had become a mere, winding overgrown ditch.

A wealthy rancher from the west bought the wetland area.  Before long there were more dozers and chainsaws busy clearing and draining the bottomland.  A new channel was cut for the stream to run through, a straight drainage ditch.  Being paranoid that someone would become injured or trapped in one of the old sandstone caverns, the landowner even had the bull dozers cave in and seal off the entrances.  In time, and to the amazement of some of the local residents, the wetland became a cow pasture.

Later still, when I was in my mid-twenties, I made a scouting walk up the Ozan.  I had a new son and had it in mind to make some of my childhood treks with him once he became old enough.  By then, a new housing development was beginning to spring up in the fields above the bluffs.  There were brand new, large homes being built for the upwardly mobile of the nearest town.  Once I came upon Buffalo Spring, I was dismayed to find, in the pool beneath the cusp, a large wooden cable spool, dumped along with lesser bits and pieces of leftover construction material.  Developers and new residents were using the creek as a garbage dump.  Further on, I found barbed wire strung all the way to the creek banks.  The old walking trail was gone.  The bench paths along the bluffs were eroded away.  As more time went by, the wealthy occupants of the Ozan estates began to use the creek for riding popular, new all-terrain-vehicles, scarring the creek bed and its banks with deep, muddy ruts as well as leaving litter.  It was a whole new change and not necessarily for the better.

Scenarios similar to mine have happened in many places during the past several decades.  I hear it from like-minded people all over the world: “I once knew this lovely place.  It’s changed now.”

Why do I like parks so much?  One reason is I can’t go home again.  Only in distant memory can I walk along the path that my family’s four generations took one Sunday afternoon long ago.  As I grow older, I look on and see, in real terms, what happens if an inspiring, natural place is not protected in some way.  There is certainty that it will be degraded or vanish entirely, especially with new populations, changing values, and a drive, by some, to turn natural resources into more wealth.

One of the most comforting thoughts that I can imagine is that when my granddaughter is grown and tall, and a force to be reckoned with, that there will still be a Boy Scout Trail at Petit Jean State Park.  I hope that she will be out on it with a daypack strapped to her back, testing strong legs against stone, sunrays still heating up the walls of the ancient slot canyons in the Seven Hollows.  And I hope I’m there, trying to keep up.  Parks such as Petit Jean, for us and even for those who exist out in the distant future, give special places and the people who know them a chance to endure.

“The legacy of Arkansas State Parks is to preserve our state’s diverse beauty and history, so that all Arkansans and visitors may find emotional and intellectual connections to their heritage.” - Theme Statement of Arkansas State Parks

“The legacy of Arkansas State Parks is to preserve our state’s diverse beauty and history, so that all Arkansans and visitors may find emotional and intellectual connections to their heritage.”

BT Jones, Park Interpreter

BT Jones, Park Interpreter

BT Jones is a park interpreter at Petit Jean State Park and has worked there since 2005.  He holds a master’s degree in education from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.  BT is a member of the National Association for Interpretation (NAI) and holds a Certified Interpretive Guide credential.  He is also a Leave No Trace (LNT) master educator and works as an advocate for Arkansas wilderness.  BT’s pasttimes are nature and wildlife photography, hiking and backpacking, and helping to preserve Arkansas’s wilderness and natural areas.  He most enjoys hiking with park visitors and presenting programs on Petit Jean’s natural and historical features.


The Timelessness of Petit Jean State Park

January 28, 2010

In a world where the pace of change sometimes seems to accelerate daily, it’s nice to know that there are still places that don’t change so rapidly or so much.  One of my favorites of these special places is Petit Jean State Park.  When I compare the natural beauty I see here now with what I saw more than a quarter of a century ago, I can’t think of anything that has altered significantly.  And that’s the way I like it.

Cedar Falls, below Mather Lodge, is one of the most beautiful settings in Arkansas.

Cedar Falls, below Mather Lodge, is one of the most beautiful natural settings in Arkansas. Thousands of visitors a year hike the Cedar Falls Trail for the view.

Dr. T.W. Hardison was one of the early architects of Petit

Dr. T.W. Hardison was one of the early architects of Petit Jean State Park

One of the purposes of establishing Petit Jean State Park in 1923 was to protect an exceptional piece of Arkansas for the future enjoyment of the public.  The 2,658-acre park has the distinction of being Arkansas’s first state park.  Part of the reason for this is that Petit Jean Mountain was a very special place for a physician who began practicing in the area in the early 1900’s.  Dr. T.W. Hardison was a staunch advocate for setting aside and protecting some of the mountain’s most scenic areas, and it is largely due to his efforts that the park exists today.

Petit Jean Mountain is actually one of many plateaus in the Arkansas River Valley Region, shaped from millions of years of erosion.   But it has natural features that set it apart from other nearby areas, such as sandstone rocks which resemble the shells of giant turtles, a large bluff shelter (Rock House Cave) was inhabited and decorated by prehistoric Native Americans, and Cedar Falls, an exceptionally scenic waterfall cascading from the upper Cedar Creek Canyon into the lower canyon.

The Davies Bridge over Cedar Creek has endured for over 75 years.

The Davies Bridge over Cedar Creek has endured for over 75 years.

Man-made features also help to set Petit Jean State Park apart.  Many of these were constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930’s, and they were built to last.  Historic Mather Lodge and some of the park’s cabins were built in a rustic style that has a timeless appeal, and these have served park visitors for many decades.  We make renovations when needed, but the historical integrity of the structures is maintained.  For example, the historic Davies Bridge, which is one of only 8 masonry arch bridges in Arkansas and was originally constructed in 1934, served park visitors and mountain residents for more than 70 years with little need for maintenance.  But eventually,

Interpreter lead park programs are a great way to experience the diverse flora and fauna of the park.

Interpreter led park programs are a great way to experience the the park.

years of hard use necessitated major repairs which were begun in 2006.  Although stones had to be removed, each one was numbered and replaced in the same position it had originally occupied, so that the overall appearance of the bridge hardly changed at all.

I and the other staff members of Petit Jean State Park are committed to preserving the park as a place of timeless beauty for present and future generations to enjoy.  This commitment may be best summed up in the park’s mission statement: “Petit Jean State Park is a natural and historical area which has been set aside by the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism for protecting and preserving in its original habitat and native beauty the flora, fauna, and cultural history within its boundaries.  A highly trained professional staff is dedicated to managing and preserving the many unique natural resources, historical structures, and facilities for the benefit of park visitors and future generations.  Recreational activities, natural and cultural interpretations, outdoor education, and other goods and services are provided to accommodate the public’s need for leisure time and to attract leisure travel to the state.”

"Here is the place to rest, eat, sleep, dance, play and enjoy a summer's vacation...The view from here is inspiring."

"Here is the place to rest, eat, sleep, dance, play and enjoy a summer's vacation...The view from here is inspiring." - 1940's publication

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.”