Babysitting a Beaver

November 15, 2011
A beaver is rescued by the Park Superintendent.

A beaver is rescued by the Park Superintendent.

Only a few short years ago a few friends and a coworker of mine had an unusual experience while kayaking the flooded woods of Moro Bay State Park.  It was spring time and the river rose to the point where it closed the park.  This happens every couple of years at Moro Bay State Park so our facilities are built to withstand high water.  It doesn’t rise fast like it does in the hills of northern Arkansas.  Instead it climbs only about a foot per day or two feet per day in severe cases.   Once the river exceeds 85 ft above sea level the only way to explore the park is by boat or kayak.  I prefer kayak because negotiating the current in the woods is more exiting with a paddle and the quietness of a kayak affords a paddler some excellent wildlife viewing opportunities.  Such was the case on this cool spring evening in April of 2008.  It was almost sunset when a critter was spotted in the slough near the campground.  At first glimpse we could only see the ripples behind a dark object as it moved across the top of the water.  When Mark Myers (the former Park Superintendent) moved closer to investigate, it was clear that this was no scary alligator or dangerous serpent.  Instead it was a baby beaver (beaver kit) and the mother was nowhere in sight.  The beaver swam and played amongst the group of us for a few minutes.  Then Mark held his paddle out by the beaver kit and to our surprise, it climbed up on it as if it were a diving board.  The beaver jumped off the paddle and climb back on it several times in a playful manor.  The beaver kit was curious.  It didn’t run like most wild animals.  It had not yet learned to fear humans.

The writer (current Park Superintendent) with the beaver.

The writer (current Park Superintendent) with the beaver.

We laughed and smiled in amazement of this unique experience.  However, we soon began to wonder where the mother was.  The area this beaver was found in was very close to the park and only about 100 yards from the visitor center through the flooded woods.  It was not an area beavers had been sighted in before, even during flood conditions.  Our best guess was that the high water and current had separated this beaver from its mother.   It is our nature to want to protect babies of all species but the last thing we would want to do is take it from the care of its mother if she would return.  Many times people bring baby deer to the park that are often more kidnapped than rescued.  What people don’t realize is that the mother of the deer fawn is usually nearby and will return as soon as they leave.  The same is true with most mammals.  The rule I use is, leave the baby alone unless you visibly confirm the mother has died or the location of the baby is dangerous for it.  My experience with trying to raise wild baby animals is that they often don’t survive without their mothers regardless of how well you try to take care of them.  Our decision in this case was a compromise.  We had the opportunity to look over the baby and only move it a short distance from the location we found it in.  We brought it with us to the back of the visitor center.  The beaver rode on my lap in the kayak and I made no effort to keep it from escaping.

Pre-release

Pre-release

Our plan was to keep the beaver close and release it if the mother was seen or if the beaver chose not to stay.  We supplied it with food and a make shift hut made of limbs and a dog kennel.   Every few hours I let it out to swim and play on its own.  Each time the beaver returned to the kennel.  However, the following afternoon I let the beaver out to swim and it ventured a little further than usual.  I watched as it swam back to the slough where we had found it.  I didn’t try to capture it. Instead I simply said, farewell.  I left the kennel where it could return but we never observed it again.  However, a few weeks later the water receded and a lady came by the visitor center.  She was a local from just down the river and began to tell me a story about a curious baby beaver she had recently seen by her dock.  I smiled as I told her about our experience just a few weeks prior.

Reflecting on the experience now I am thankful to work at a park that provides visitors the opportunity to have experiences like this one.  Arkansas has many excellent parks like Moro Bay where visitors can rent a kayak or canoe and set out on an expedition with a Park Interpreter.   They can also set out on their own and enjoy the solitude of nature like I have many times canoeing in Moro Creek.  Sometimes, a person sees a bald eagle, wild hogs, or a white tailed deer.  Most times a person sees fish flouncing and a couple of Great Blue Herons coupled with a beautiful sunrise or sunset.  However, every time a person sets out they can experience the majestic cypress trees, a beautiful river, and the excitement of not knowing what critter will be just around the next bend.  It is my hope that the readers of this blog will realize the value of their Arkansas State Parks.  As our population increases and our natural resources are continuously transformed into subdivisions and parking lots, experiences like these are becoming increasingly rare.   Your Arkansas State Parks are set aside, protected, and determined in their mission to provide you with outdoor experiences that can enhance the quality of your life.  We are not only concerned with this generation but also the ones to come.

Canoeing Moro Creek.

Canoeing Moro Creek.

Paul Butler, Park Superintendent

Paul Butler, Park Superintendent

Paul Butler grew up in the Suburbs of Little Rock.  In 1999 he went to college at the University of Arkansas at Monticello to play baseball.  He worked for the fisheries department of The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission for three years in college performing fish sampling and other duties as assigned.  In May of 2005 he received a degree in Wildlife Management and began his Career with Arkansas State Parks that same month as a seasonal Interpreter at Cane Creek State Park.  In August of 2005 he was hired as the full time Interpreter for Moro Bay State Park.  In July of 2009 Paul became Superintendent of Moro Bay State Park.

 

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Getting Your Feet Wet

October 6, 2011
Park Guests take part in a seining program.

Park Guests take part in a seining program.

The best way to learn is to get your feet wet, or at least that is how I feel when I give this program. These park guests are taking part in my creek seining program. It was developed to help monitor the aquatic life found in Lee Creek, but it turned into so much more.  As they were scooping up fish this little girl got her first look at a dragonfly larvae, she had no idea that these winged insects start their lives in the water. As we moved farther down the creek they continued to collect all sorts of things; minnows, darters, crayfish, dragonfly larvae, tadpoles, and even a snake. They couldn’t believe the amount of life that lives in this small creek. It was a great experience for all them to understand that this creek plays so many roles in the park, including home to many creatures.

This is why I enjoy resource management programs in the park. It gives everyone an opportunity to go behind the scenes, and become a citizen scientist. They get to see things differently, they get to hold the resources in their hand and get a better understanding of the park itself. This also helps us accomplish part of our mission “To safeguard the natural, historical and cultural resources.” To do this we keep a natural resource inventory in the park to monitor these resources. This can be a pretty daunting task, so having help is a great benefit.

Getting up close and personal with reptiles and amphibians.

Getting up close and personal with reptiles and amphibians.

Another program that involves collecting data is our bird hike. It is so much more enjoyable to see birds through binoculars than squinting to make out its colors and features. It is also fun to just sit back and listen, but regardless of how we are identifying them we are adding to our inventory so that we can continue to protect and admire these creatures. This monitoring was very important last year in the addition of Spotted Towhee, Lark Sparrow, and Clay-colored Sparrow to our park list.

I also like to present programs that give an opportunity to explore and observe on your own, such as a reptile and amphibian program that showcase some of our native animals. This gives everyone the tools to identify what they find so they can report it back to us at the park. By gathering observations we can have eyes all over the park and cover more ground.

There are many opportunities to become a citizen scientist no matter where you live or what park you visit, so we encourage you to get out and start exploring. Help us by telling what plants you found or what animals you saw. By helping us you can be sure that our great parks will be around forever.

Adam Leslie, Park Interpreter

Adam Leslie, Park Interpreter

Adam Leslie is a Park Interpreter at Devil’s Den State Park. He has been there since September of 2009. Prior to Devil’s Den he was a seasonal interpreter at Petit Jean State Park. He received a degree in Wildlife Management and Ecology from Arkansas State State. His main interest is natural resource management.


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.


Whatever Floats Your Boat

April 19, 2010

There are many things I enjoy doing in my free time, but my favorite way to pass the time in spring and summer is fishing.  To begin with fishing helps me relax.  Sometimes after a stressful day, I grab my fishing pole and paddle my canoe up Moro Bay to places that motor boats seldom venture.  I like to go just before sunset when the water is still and the cypress trees take on a ghostly appearance. I don’t always go to catch fish; sometimes I like the solitude that nature offers.  It is a spiritual feeling that calms the soul.

It's always relaxing moving through the quiet backwaters at Moro Bay.

It's always relaxing moving through the quiet backwaters at Moro Bay.

Still, I enjoy fishing with other people as well.  In my youth, the hot summer days I spent fishing with my best friend Robert cannot easily be counted.  On several occasions Robert would wade out chest deep and grab a catfish with his bare hands while I reeled it in.   I still enjoy fishing with my father.  There are days when we do not catch a fish but that never keeps us from trying again.  Fishing for me has become more about the experience than catching my limit.  While fishing I have established two lifelong relationships.   One is with my best friend Robert.  He is like a brother to me

Nothing goes together like kids and fishing.

Nothing goes together like kids and fishing.

because our friendship cannot be broken.  The other is with my father.  I know that when he dies I will remember all the good times we had fishing and store those warm memories in my heart.  In the future I will reflect on the good advice he gave me on the long rides to the lake and pass it on to my children.

A reason to smile.

A reason to smile.

As a Park interpreter and now a Park Superintendent I have been able to share the experiences of fishing with a number of visitors.  Sometimes the experiences are with children who attend a day camp. I enjoying fishing with the kids who know how to fish and helping them become better at it.  However, I like to work with the kids who have never caught a fish before even more.  The look on child’s face when they reel in a slimy fish for the first time is priceless.  Many times they forget to reel and instead run backwards up the bank until the fish is dragged in.  In my time here at Moro Bay State Park I have seen some awesome fishing experiences.  Often times my role in them has been small.  In these photos all I did was say congratulations and took a picture.

Quality family time and a big 'ol fish!

Quality family time and a big 'ol fish!

I love to catch big fish.  However, these days I find myself more excited watching the next generation make memories like the ones I made when I was their age.  This is what our Perch Jerk Classic Fishing Tournament is about and this is one of the reasons many people visit Moro Bay State Park.

Another beautiful sunset at Moro Bay State Park.

Another beautiful sunset at Moro Bay State Park.

Paul Butler, Park Superintendent

Paul Butler, Park Superintendent

Paul Butler grew up in the Suburbs of Little Rock.  In 1999 he went to college at the University of Arkansas at Monticello to play baseball.  He worked for the fisheries department of The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission for three years in college performing fish sampling and other duties as assigned.  In May of 2005 he received a degree in Wildlife Management and began his Career with Arkansas State Parks that same month as a seasonal Interpreter at Cane Creek State Park.  In August of 2005 he was hired as the full time Interpreter for Moro Bay State Park.  In July of 2009 Paul became Superintendent of Moro Bay State Park.


An Adventure in Spring

April 5, 2010
The main trailhead for three of the trails at Lake Catherine.

The main trailhead for three of the trails at Lake Catherine.

Spring has come to the park once again. I love the smells and sounds of this time of year. There are tiny buds all over the trees. The spring birds are back and filling up the air with their songs.  The winter bleakness is behind us. The warm air hits my face as I hike on one of our trails here at Lake Catherine State Park. I decide to hike Falls Branch.

There is so much to see on this trail. There is a nice little creek that greets you at the beginning. There are a series o f bridges that you must cross to traverse the trail. In front of me, I find a fern garden. The fiddleheads are poking through.

As I start to climb upwards I am greeted by the novaculite glade. Novaculite is a very special rock found in Hot Springs. The Native Americans used this rock extensively in their everyday life. You may know it as the knife sharpening stone or whetstone. This rock weathers very slowly.

I continue on my journey stopping for a moment at a bench to rest and take a drink. There is a slight breeze blowing that gently pushes my hair from my face. I hike on. There is a group of rocks to my left that overlooks the area I just came from, I affectionately nicknamed them the Pulpit Rock as I can imagine someone standing in front of them and reading a verse or two.

Serviceberry is one of the early blooms of spring.

Serviceberry is one of the early blooms of spring.

There is no creek on top of the mountain right now, but I know that I will pick up Falls Creek Falls soon. Upwards I climb, I pass the intersection of where Falls Branch meets Horseshoe Mountain and I know that I am on the downward stretch.  All around the Serviceberry has bloomed. I hear that they received their name because of the early days when there were traveling preachers, this was the bloom that coincided with the first services of the year as the snow melted and roads became passable again.  I start hearing the creek and I know that I will be on the home stretch soon.

There are many downed trees from previous storms around me and I am in awe to see the root system that they have and know that this tree had stood for 50 years before an ice storm or a mighty wind took it down.

Sitting and listening to Falls Creek Falls is a great way to spend an early spring day.

Sitting and listening to Falls Creek Falls is a great way to spend an early spring day.

CCC steps along the trail.

CCC steps along the trail.

As I continue my journey down, I start seeing the series of waterfalls that will lead to the major waterfall. One waterfall has moss growing down and the water drips off the moss into the pool below.  I watch my footing as I descend steps built by the Civilian Conservation Corps many  years ago. Finally, I am at the waterfall. It is flowing pretty well as we had rain and it filled the creek. I take a few pictures and head on. I am almost to the finish now.  I see the lake in front of me and then there is Remmel Dam. The dam was built in 1924 and was the first hydroelectric dam in the state of Arkansas. This dam created Lake Catherine.

The Swinging Bridge on the Falls Branch Trail.

The Swinging Bridge on the Falls Branch Trail.

I come to the swinging bridge. I love this part, wobbling across this bridge that expands over a small ditch.  I round the curve and see Bald Cypress trees to my right. This about the only place in the park that these trees are found. They love wet soil.

I walk on to the parking lot and my journey is finished for now.

Julie Tharp, Park Interpreter

Julie Tharp, Park Interpreter

Julie Tharp is the park interpreter at Lake Catherine State Park and has worked there since 2006. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Parks and Recreation from Arkansas Tech University in Russellville. She is a Certified Interpretive Guide and a member of the National Association for Interpretation. Julie enjoys photography and playing with her dogs in her spare time. She grew up camping in the state parks and likes to share nature with park visitors.


The Mary Woods No. 2 – Life on the River

February 4, 2010
Boats help tell the story of Arkansas Rivers.

Boats help tell the story of Arkansas Rivers.

Yes, it’s true:  The rise and fall of the timeless Black and White Rivers shape life and history at Jacksonport State Park. It’s been a stressful and sad week here, and it’s only Tuesday as I write this. We began this week learning that, by alleged vandals or turn of fate, the beautiful Mary Woods No. 2 had sunk.

This wasn’t her first experience with disaster. Back in 1984, in another frozen winter, old water intake lines froze and cracked. She took on water and slowly, gently listed to starboard finally resting at an angle on the river bottom with 250 tons of White River water in her gut. Considerable damage was done, but she was righted and restored to continue her reign as the only sternwheeler on the White River.

The Tornado

Then in March 1997, an even more disastrous event struck: That day the clouds were black, the wind howled and rain flew sideways as a tornado took a diagonal path through the community of Jacksonport. Crossing the White River, it first slammed into the Mary Woods. She was severely damaged. Her stacks were blown down. Windows were smashed out. The pilot house roof was gone. But, the Mary Woods was afloat. She’d amazingly survived a direct hit.

Can't you just imagine yourself standing n the pilot house guiding the Mary Woods No. 2 up the White River?

Can't you just imagine yourself standing in the pilot house guiding the Mary Woods No. 2 up the White River?

Recognizing the value of the Mary Woods No. 2 and the values she represents, Arkansas State Parks returned her to life again. With emergency funds from the Governor’s office, FEMA funds and more, Arkansas State Parks entered into one of the most detailed, historical architectural investigations ever undertaken. This included document research, construction drawings and oral histories from those who piloted the boat during her glory days of the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s when she worked the bends, shallows and bars of the White River. As a result, the original Mary Woods No. 2 and the stories she could tell were brought to life.

New Life

The painstaking restoration that took five years was completed in 2002 and brought the paddleboat as close to her actual operating appearance as possible. No details were overlooked in the exhibits telling the story of this work

Life on a working riverboat is reflected in the interior restoration.

Life on a working riverboat is reflected in the interior restoration.

boat.  Inside, shelves were filled with canned goods representing the era, bread was rising on the sideboard, and the captain’s table set for diner. The voice of captains past could be heard telling their stories of life on the Mary Woods No. 2. It was as if she was ready to back away from the bank and head upstream. Representatives of a nationally-known exhibit firm toured the steamboat and commented on her excellent condition and interpretation.

What Happens Now?

Her next renovation may be an especially challenging one. She sank in deep water and rolled completely starboard, leaving but a rim of her port exposed. Water has filled every niche, swallowed every exhibit, and shaken every rafter. Plans are underway to right her again and discover what damage was done. We’ll see what the next life is for the Mary Woods No. 2.

She Tells the Story of Jacksonport

The rise and fall of the timeless Black and White Rivers continue to shape the life and history at Jacksonport State Park. Rivers made Jacksonport. In the 1800s steamboats provided the fastest and most dependable transportation in this state blessed with many rivers. Steamboat pilot Thomas Todd Tunstall piloted the first steamboat up the White River in 1831, and soon established Jacksonport as his home and a shipping point.

Life, prosperity, failure and growth ebbed and flowed with river travel and trade. Residents had access to all the finery of Boston and Philadelphia, London and Paris by way of the river. Steamboat excursions headed upriver to Ozark places like Batesville and Calico Rock, and steamboats carried passengers downriver to Memphis, St. Louis and New Orleans. Jacksonport was such a lively place that it almost became the capital of the state. Then, when trade turned from graceful steamboats to the iron horse or the railroad, Jacksonport slowly slipped into the past.

The Mary Woods No. 2 in her working days.

The Mary Woods No. 2 in her working days.

Those of you who have walked the decks of the Mary Woods No. 2 know that she is an icon of the White and nearby Black rivers, and of river life across North America. She is the visible connection between Jacksonport’s stately but landlocked 1872 courthouse, and the river that made Jacksonport the county seat and the courthouse possible. She is the tangible connection to our intangible past of danger, expectation, courage, promise, and hope.

The Mary Woods really isn’t an old boat. We often think of steamboats during their heyday in the late the 1800s, but steamboats and sternwheelers were commonplace into the 1960s. The Mary Woods No. 2 was built in 1931 by the Nashville Bridge Company in Nashville, Tennessee.

Designed for river travel, her flat hull draws less than four feet of water, making her able to work shallow water passing sand bars and operate close to riverbanks. She is 136 feet long and weights 157 tons. A powerful sternwheeler, her two, 300 horsepower steam engines allowed her to confidently work the Mississippi, White, Black, Cache and other rivers moving logs from cuts to mills. The Mary Woods No. 2 worked with two barges which could each carry 85,000 board feet of logs.

In 1949, the Mary Woods No. 2 went from oil-burning to diesel engines.

In 1949, the Mary Woods No. 2 went from oil-burning to diesel engines.

Originally a coal-burning steamboat, the Mary Woods No. 2 was converted to a fuel burning steam vessel in 1937. She burned Bunker C fuel, which, was described by Captain Claude Ashmore as “crude oil with everything taken out that could be used for something else.” In 1949 the Mary Woods No. 2 was once again transformed, this time from oil-burning steam power to diesel engines.

In 1967, the Mary Woods No. 2 was donated to the Arkansas state park system and was moored at Jacksonport State Park. Forty-three years have passed since that day when she came around the bend heading to her new home on the White River at Jacksonport.

Today, we wait with anticipation, and a sense of urgency, to see what will happen next.

 

**UPDATE** Unfortunately, the Mary Woods II is no more. Due to the amount of damage sustained to the wooden superstructure of the boat the Mary Woods II is beyond repair. Any attempt to reconstruct here would be a fabrication of the historic vessel. The ships bell and pilot wheel were saved for future exhibits in a new visitor center for the park that is being planned.

 

Jay Miller, Chief Interpreter

Jay Miller, Chief Interpreter

–Jay Miller is chief of interpretation for Arkansas State Parks, based in Little Rock but working statewide. He began his career with the department in 1976 and has seen the Mary Woods No. 2 in several stages of disrepair and restoration. It is one of the unique resources entrusted to the care of Arkansas State Parks. Under jay’s direction, the Arkansas State Park interpretation program has received awards for excellence in exhibits, publications, and interpretation.  In 2006 Jay was named NAI’s National Interpretation Manager of the Year, and in 2008 he received the Region 6 Lifetime Achievement award. Jay has been a consultant to parks here and overseas and leads workshops on interpretation training, planning, and exhibit design. He holds a Masters Degree from Utah State University and is a Certified Interpretive Planner and Trainer.


Eagle Eyes

January 25, 2010

Each year, hundreds of bald eagles find their way to the Natural State to winter.  Arkansas State Parks have numerous programs and special events to help you explore the fascinating world of these and other birds of prey.  Bull Shoals-White River State Park hosts such an event:  Eagle Awareness, held annually in January. This special weekend features a variety of activities and presentations from guest speakers.

One of these activities is the Eagle Watch Van Tour.  Bull Shoals Lake and the world-famous White River are havens for these wintering birds and ideal locations to catch a glimpse of these majestic creatures.  Our van tours take you to parts of the shoreline along the lake and river.

Writing of these van tours brings to mind an experience I had on one such outing in recent years:

Eagle Watches are among the most popular programs in Arkansas State Parks during the winter.

Eagle Watches are among the most popular programs in Arkansas State Parks during the winter.

Our Journey Begins

My story took place on a cold January morning. I was riding along in Van #2 with a group of excited would-be eagle spotters.  Three vans were on the hunt, scouting different locations throughout the state park in search of these sometimes elusive birds.  Our group was an eclectic one, ranging in age from early twenties to, well let’s just say “up in their years.”  Small chat filled the van as each rider had one eye looking out of the windows to the cloudy sky above.

After a short drive into the campground we began scanning the bluffs above the crystal-clear waters of the White River, which flows right alongside the campsites. Up ahead, we noticed some activity from Van #1.  The vehicle had stopped and the riders had piled out. They were hastily approaching the river’s bank afoot, pointing to the bluff across the river.  Their binoculars in position and their fingers pointing to the bluff told us they had hit the jackpot!

Our van had barely come to a stop when the first of our group sprang open the doors. Each followed closely behind, binoculars and bird checklists in hand.  I look back, now, and imagine that sprint across the grassy field as a hazy, dream-like jaunt in slow motion.  I see binoculars flopping around the necks of grown men and women as they hold their hats on their heads as they run in an attempt not to lose them. In this almost-Olympic event, such an occurrence would cause one to have to stop and pick it up, only placing them even further behind in the heat.  Had Vangelis’ theme from Chariots of Fire been playing, nothing could have been more fitting.

We arrived riverside next to group #1 with our whole group slouching over, gasping for enough oxygen to ensure our brains could fire a message to our hands to raise our binoculars and place them to our eyes.  Something had caught the eyes of our companions and we were going to get in on the action.  After looking in the direction of the pointing fingers I noticed something white in a tree high above the river.  “It’s a bald eagle!” someone exclaimed. I placed my binoculars against my eyes and after a little focus adjustment I spied the anomaly.  There it was…..a white plastic grocery bag.

Quietness overcame the group and disappointment was on the faces of all standing there.  A plastic grocery bag, deposited outdoors by an obvious non-environmentally-conscious shopper, had been the cause of untold elation and then sadness.  Do you know how long it takes those things to decompose?  But that’s another story.

The easist way to see an eagle in the wild for your self is with the help of a park interpreter.

The easiest way to see an eagle in the wild for your self is with the help of a park interpreter.

A Second Chance

I’m unsure if it was disappointment from not seeing an eagle or embarrassment from mistaking a polyethylene bag for the symbol of our great nation that silenced all in the group.  But in that silence a faint static was heard.  It was coming from the radio held in my hand.  I raised the radio closer to my ear and adjusted the volume.

“This is Van #3…we have a sighting at”…..then static.  Everyone in the group stopped in their tracks and leaned forward, holding their breath and turning their heads so their ears could catch every nuance of the transmission.  “This is #2…please repeat.”

More static then… “This is Van #3.  We have spotted and eagle just below Bull Shoals Dam.”  Silence filled the air as each redeemed bird spotter looked around at the reaction of the others.  Then in a flash of excitement, the previous “run for the roses” was repeated but in the opposite direction.  You would have thought a blue light special had just been announced in the electronics department of a discount store on Black Friday.

In record time the vans were once again filled and ready to go.  As Van #1 quickly pulled away I found myself sitting shotgun in a van full of over-zealous, bird-crazy adults with no driver.  My colleague, the driver, was still on the bank of the river standing in awe of several species of waterfowl paddling in the water.  In an attempt to maintain my composure and a desperate sense of professionalism I yelled out the window across the field.  “Hello…there’s an eagle at the dam….didn’t you get the memo?”  I could sense the tension in the van as the driver scurried toward us, but to everyone’s credit nothing was said.  Finally we were on our way.

The Sighting

After another short drive, we safely arrived at the dam site in time to share what would be an incredible experience with our companions.  There across the river, perched high on the limb of a tree, sat a bald eagle.  As I peered through my binoculars I could see the detail of its beautiful iconic coat, which consists of an amazing 7,000 feathers.  Its yellow eyes stared directly at us, as if to acknowledge our presence there.  Its huge, powerful talons gripped the tree limb, while the winter breeze made its way through the pristine White River valley.  We all have seen photographs or video of a bald eagle at some time in our life.  But standing there observing, with our own eyes, this magnificent animal was an experience which can hardly be put into words.

Everyone stood quietly in adoration as they viewed the spectacle.  I looked around the group; smiles were everywhere.  Some of the couples even held hands as they shared the moment.  Then, without notice, the bald eagle left its roost as its 6-foot wingspan lifted it into the air.  A few gasps and exclamations sounded from the group as we watched the eagle soar above the river.  All eyes, some filled with tears, watched the bird as it flew high out of sight.

We all just stood there for a moment, reflecting on what had just happened.  It was as if the whole world had just stopped and nature, in all its beauty, reached out a touched each of us.  It was a moment that I, and all who were there, will never forget.

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Click here for a current listing of eagle tours and programs at state parks across the state.
Randy Pearson, Park Interpreter

Randy Pearson, Park Interpreter

–Randy Pearson is a park interpreter at Bull Shoals-White River State Park. A native Arkansan, he was born in northeast Arkansas and moved to the Mountain Home area in 1992, where he worked in management and bookkeeping before diving into photography. After six years of owning/operating a digital imaging business, he decided to make a change, which included taking a job as a seasonal employee at Bull Shoals-White River State Park.  He enjoyed it so much that he returned for several seasons and began volunteering to present programs for campers. In 2007, Randy officially became a park interpreter.  “Coming to work every day for Arkansas State Parks is a very rewarding experience,” Randy says. “For the first time, I feel I am working for something instead of for someone.  The wonderful people I have met and the experiences I have had make me look forward to the years to come.”