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.

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It’s School Group Season!

May 6, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tara Gillanders, Park Interpreter

Tara Gillanders, Park Interpreter

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


The Park that was a Farm

February 22, 2010

Entering Crowley’s Ridge State Park, the first things you notice are the trees.  As you wander through the park you will see a wide variety of trees, shrubs, vines, and flowering plants.  Looking at all of the greenery it might be hard to picture the land as a farm, but that is exactly what it was before a determined group of people decided that it needed to become a park.

Crowley’s Grave – this monument was built in the Shiloh Cemetery to honor Benjamin Crowley, the first prominent settler on the ridge and the man for whom Crowley’s Ridge was named.

Crowley’s Grave – this monument was built in the Shiloh Cemetery to honor Benjamin Crowley, the first prominent settler on the ridge and the man for whom Crowley’s Ridge was named.

In the early 1800’s a man named Benjamin Crowley decided to settle in Northeast Arkansas.  He had originally been given a piece of land in Missouri as partial payment for his service in the War of 1812.  Unfortunately, when he arrived to settle his land he discovered that it had been covered with water due to the massive earthquakes that shook the area in 1811 and 1812, so he decided to keep searching for a good spot to set up his homestead.  Although he traveled through Davidsonville and stayed there for a little while he eventually made his way to what would later become a little town called Walcott and set up his homestead there.  He liked it so much that he encouraged his family and friends to move to the area.  On his land the first church service for the area was held, the first court session for Greene County was held, and one of the first cemeteries was established.

Mrs. Belle Hodges Wall’s perseverance played a large part in the creation of Crowley’s Ridge State Park.

Mrs. Belle Hodges Wall’s perseverance played a large part in the creation of Crowley’s Ridge State Park.

As time went on most of the land was used for farmland until a small group of citizens decided that the area needed to be set aside due to its historical significance.  Led by a woman named Belle Hodges Wall, the group formed the Greene County Historical Society and began working to raise money to purchase land that could then be set aside as a park.  The first time they contacted the state government about including their land in the brand new state park system they were informed that the amount of land was not enough to declare it a state park and that the farm land and swamp areas would make a poor park.  Rather than giving up Mrs. Wall organized a letter writing campaign and hired W.R. Heagler to design a plan that would turn the farm into a park.  Eventually Mrs. Wall was successful and in 1933 the land was accepted as a state park.  W.R. Heagler was chosen as the first superintendent and oversaw the construction of the park facilities.

The beginnings of the park coincided with the beginnings of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal projects.  Five CCC companies over the course of five years, from 1933 to 1938, worked to transform the land into a place that the community would be proud to claim as their local state park.  They built facilities, put in culverts, cleared trails, and planted more than ten thousand trees and more than fifty thousand shrubs and vines.  Although, the trees create a wonderful view, some might argue that

The first company of Civilian Conservation Corps workers lived in tents while working on the park.  This picture shows the barren conditions that the area was in before the CCC planted numerous trees, vines, and shrubs.

The first company of Civilian Conservation Corps workers lived in tents while working on the park. This picture shows the barren conditions that the area was in before the CCC planted numerous trees, vines, and shrubs.

planting the shrubs and vines was actually more important.  The soil on Crowley’s Ridge is highly erodible and after being farmed for so long one of the big concerns was the soil simply blowing away.  The root systems of the shrubs and vines spread quickly, helping to hold the soil in place.

Today our visitors enjoy walks on our hiking trails that take them through the woods and past a wide variety of plants species.  Many species of wildlife have moved in and set up homes, including whitetail deer, turkey, red fox, and pileated woodpeckers.  Through the perseverance of a community and the hard work of a group of young men the farm has become a park that is a treasured part of the northeast Arkansas community and thanks to the Arkansas State Parks system and the citizens of Arkansas it will remain that way for many years to come.

The Wishing Well Flume near Lake Ponder is surrounded by greenery.

The Wishing Well Flume near Lake Ponder is surrounded by greenery.

Heather Runyan, Park Interpreter

Heather Runyan, Park Interpreter

Heather Runyan graduated from Henderson State University with a bachelor’s degree in Recreation and Park Administration and after college served two terms as an AmeriCorps member.   She began working for Arkansas State Parks in 2006 as the Park Interpreter at Crowley’s Ridge State Park.   Heather is a member of the National Association for Interpretation and a Certified Interpretive Guide.


It’s About the People

February 15, 2010

The elderly visitor stood at the first marker on the Knapp Trail, gazing out across the plaza area, a wide expanse of open grass. The wind carried the scent of many wildflowers straight toward his uplifted face.  He had rather long, dark hair shot through with streaks of gray. It was stirring in the breeze. His distinct facial features quietly spoke of his Native American heritage.  He was leaning on a walking staff. A feather hanging on a leather thong at the top of the staff danced in the breeze. A small, very old and weathered-looking, brown leather medicine bag hung around his neck.   His dark brown eyes focused on Mound A, the tallest Indian mound in Arkansas.  As an interpreter at Toltec Mounds Archeological State Park, I usually stop and speak with visitors, but something told me I should leave this gentleman undisturbed for a while. It was easy to tell by the expression on his weathered face that he was deep in contemplation.  I walked past him and continued out to check on some unusual wildflowers I had seen blooming near the small lake that people from Scott, Arkansas know as Mound Pond.

Visitors enjoy the diverse eco-system of Mound Lake.

Visitors enjoy the diverse eco-system of Mound Lake.

I stayed a while on the boardwalk looking across the water. What a beautiful, breezy spring day! I turned and looked at the huge mound on the edge of the water. I imagined people, long ago, trudging up the side of that structure carrying basket loads of dirt, each one adding to the now silent testimony of the immense pile of soil that stood before me. 

The great earthen monument sang its silent song to me again. I could visualize Indian children playing happily here at its foot. It was easy to hear them laughing as they picked flowers, fished or caught frogs. 

My mind drifted forward in time to a fun morning I’d enjoyed with a group from the School for the Deaf that visited Toltec Mounds. I recalled their delight at discovering the green tree frogs on the boardwalk. How timeless this place is!  It has always meant something to someone.

I love interacting with our visitors and bringing the site and the people that built this place alive for them. People come here for different reasons. Sometimes the signs on the Interstate bring them in. It is simple curiosity. They are on vacation, touring, looking for something interesting to see and do. 

Some, like the Batun family who are of Mayan heritage, are attracted by the name Toltec. Senor Batun is working on his master’s degree in anthropology at Florida State University.  He and his family were on their way out west to see the Grand Canyon, when they noticed the signs and took a detour to see Toltec Mounds.  Some folks are interested in the archeology here.  They may come to volunteer on Arkansas Archeological Society lab days this summer.  Many come to learn about ancient life by participating in workshops or summer camps.  Boy Scouts, with the aid of the Quapaw Council, may come to work on their Native American Heritage badges. 

For some, like the man at the first trail marker, it is a spiritual thing. Often people come purposefully seeking that spiritual connection.  Others make connections at Toltec Mounds that they did not expect.  This place has that effect on folks.  They may come here saying, “So what?”  Yet, they go away saying “Wow!  I had no idea what was here.  This is amazing!”

A National Historic Landmark, the Toltec Mounds site comprises one of the largest and most impressive archeological sites in the Lower Mississippi River Valley.

A National Historic Landmark, the Toltec Mounds site comprises one of the largest and most impressive archeological sites in the Lower Mississippi River Valley.

As I left the boardwalk and rounded the base of Mound A to head back to the visitor center I noticed something.  The man at the first marker was still standing in the same spot I’d seen him about twenty minutes ago.  His hair was still lifting and dancing on the breeze.  I went near him again, and could see that his eyes were closed now.  A single tear sparkled in the sun on his left cheek. 

As I approached, he opened his eyes and our gazes locked.  He seemed a bit embarrassed at first and hurriedly wiped the tear away.  I just smiled knowingly and nodded.  He smiled back and said, “I can hear them…I can hear the drums.”  Now, many folks might think his remark a bit odd.  Not this interpreter.  I smiled and replied, “Me too!”   That was all we said to each other. It was all that was needed.

 

Rhonda Clay, Seasonal Park Interpreter

Rhonda Clay, Seasonal Park Interpreter

Rhonda Clay is a seasonal interpreter at Toltec Mounds Archeological State Park.  Educated at Louisiana Tech University, Rhonda has a Bachelor of Arts degree with emphasis on Wildlife Management and Public Relations.  She also holds associate degrees in Forestry Wildlife and Wildlife Conservation Biology.  Prior to this, she worked for the Caddo Parish Department of Parks in Louisiana as a park naturalist, and the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a Refuge Operations Specialist, Environmental Educator, and Native American liaison to the Caddo Indian Nation. She is a Certified Interpretive Guide and active member of the National Association for Interpretation.