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.

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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.


One of these days…to the moon!

April 1, 2010
Moon Phases

Moon Phases

Some people believe it can foretell bad weather; others say it heralds good fortune. Some say it’s made of cheese while others think it controls their moods and mental state.  Superstition or no, the moon does hold a certain sway over many people. The first people to study the moon were Babylonian astronomers, beginning a science still cultivated in nearly every country. It’s the only other rock in space which mankind has bothered to visit, spending decades of time and billions of dollars for the right to plant a flag and be the first there. And nearly everyone can recall a time when they have heard, or said, “Wow! Look at the moon!”

Where's the Cheese?

Where's the Cheese?

Simply viewed from Earth with the unaided eye the moon can be a beautiful sight, but have you ever taken a closer look?

Solidified volcanic pools and giant impact craters cover the moon, giving evidence of its violent past. When viewed with the naked eye, these features appear as various black, white and gray areas. The first astronomers to map the moon believed these areas to be full of water and named many of them as seas. The name has stuck, even though today’s astronomers know there is no liquid water on the moon.

When viewed with even low power binoculars, these formations sharpen into an impressive three dimensional picture. Many people are amazed to discover that the edges of the moon are not smooth, but riddled with craters, giving it a “chewed” or torn appearance. Cracks feather out from the point of impact, giving them depth and showing the force behind their creation. Each phase of the moon creates a new “edge” on the moon, highlighting different formations, making each of these nights spent with the moon a new treat.

The moon has created wonder and legend for centuries.

The moon has created wonder and legend for centuries.

Just as you have a story for each scar earned, each formation on the moon has its own story. A moon map or astronomical field guide can help you learn more of the moon’s tale. Many astronomy web sites offer free moon maps, with natural features and moon landings marked. Looking more closely at these features on the moon can help you imagine the sites welcoming our astronauts.

As the moon rises and the sky darkens, the shadows cast across its surface give our natural satellite even more depth. As with the stargazing, the best moon watching is often done from dark areas. The lack of light pollution helps create a sharper image and increase clarity. Parks are a great place to go when looking for darker skies, but any remote, open area will work.

Throughout time, people have held many beliefs centered on the moon, with some cultures even worshiping it as a deity. While we know the moon is made of rock, and not cheese, it still holds a fair amount of mystery. Whatever your astronomical and astrological beliefs about the moon may be, head out into the dark and take a closer look at your moon.

Arkansas State Parks has numerous moon oriented programs, events and tours. Try a Full Moon Cruise or Kayak Tour, Astronomy Program or other evening program. The Lodge at Mount Magazine State Park was designed with dark skies in mind and is a perfect place to view the moon and other celestial bodies.

Brandy Oliver, Park Interpreter

Brandy Oliver, Park Interpreter

Brandy Oliver is the lodge activities director at Mt. Magazine State Park. She has been a seasonal interpreter at Lake DeGray and Lake Catherine State Park. She has a Bachelors Degree in Outdoor Recreation and Park Management from Henderson State University and is a Certified Interpretive Guide.


School’s Out – State Parks Are In!

March 15, 2010

Anyone with grade school or college-age kids already knows that Arkansas’s spring break is coming up fast, March 19-28. Arkansas State Parks are open for business and ready for guests who want safe, outdoor, family-friendly places to play and make memories!

Today’s blog is from Sarah Keating, one of our park staff who has made a family tradition of going Spring Break camping in the State Parks of Arkansas.

Why I Take My Kids Camping in Arkansas State Parks

Every year as my girls get older, they become more involved in school, sports, and other activities. It seems I have less and less time to spend with them doing the things that I love, such as exploring nature and watching sunsets. These are activities that for me hold fond memories of my childhood, and I want to share these things with my children.

Several years ago, my oldest daughter, Courtney, and I took our first spring break camping trip to Woolly Hollow State Park. After much planning, packing, and eager anticipation of sunny days and spring wildflowers, it turned out to be a cold and rainy week. Some people would have just cancelled the plans and stayed home, indoors, but I had made a promise that we would go camping and Courtney’s heart was set on it. Our camping trip was on.

It was one of the most memorable trips we have ever taken and it began our family’s Spring Break camping tradition.

The rain did keep us in our tent at times, where we had tons of fun just spending quiet time together, playing cards, talking about whatever came to our minds, and listening to the rain drip-dropping on our tent’s rain fly.

The Huckleberry Trail at Woolly Hollow State Park.

The Huckleberry Trail at Woolly Hollow State Park.

Finally, it stopped raining, and we took the chance to explore Woolly Hollow’s Huckleberry Trail. We reached a spot where a creek’s high water was up over the trail. It was not unsafe, but it was enough water that we’d need to get our shoes wet to continue our hike. I silently wondered if we should turn back, but Courtney insisted that we take our shoes and socks off and wade out across the icy cold water barefooted.  On the other side, we could put our socks and shoes back on and continue our walk comfortably.

Kids can come up with some of the best ideas.

Kids can come up with some of the best ideas.

To me, this was just a small inconvenience, but to my child, this was one of the most fun, adventuresome things we did all week! Such a simple experience–crossing that cold creek barefoot– was exhilarating for us both. I was proud of my daughter for insisting that we keep going. She was tickled that we worked together to solved a problem, and that we did something a bit on the wild side. I love that we will always share the memory of that moment.

Now, I have a second daughter who is old enough to go camping too, and my husband and I make an annual effort to schedule a family camping trip every Spring Break.  We have hung onto several activities over the years that are a must on every trip:

  • We always bring a Goosebumps book and read it around the campfire each night.
  • We try a new Dutch oven recipe each trip, and some of those recipes have become part of our camping tradition because we liked them so much.
  • We keep a journal of all the activities that we do and all the funny things that happen on each trip.
  • We always have powdered donuts.
  • We always take a family vote to decide which Arkansas State Park we will camp at next. All four of us have different requirements of our destination…Joe wants it to be someplace new that we have never visited as a family, the girls prefer somewhere with a playground, and I want somewhere with water to put my kayak in.
  • We like to go to the parks’ interpretive programs, and it’s nice that they usually have a variety of them so we can choose what’s best for our family.
  • Besides the programs, we don’t plan out our days. We just go on nature time, and explore whatever the park gives us when we get there.

Our family has now taken many fantastic Spring and Fall Break camping trips, at some wonderful Arkansas State Parks. Here are a few favorite excerpts from our journals:

  • “We woke up to a chilly morning today at Lake Ouachita State Park, with birds singing and crows calling. A gentle fog hovered over the calm surface of the water, and we all enjoyed a slow morning as the sun rose. We made a Dutch oven breakfast casserole and it was delicious.”
  • “At Lake Dardanelle State Park, we used driftwood and other natural materials found along the shoreline to make little boats. They actually floated! This was a fun, easy, free activity we all had fun working on these together.”
Emily sends her driftwood boat on its maiden voyage.

Emily sends her driftwood boat on its maiden voyage.

Courtney's boat was more of a cruise ship.

Courtney's boat was more of a cruise ship.

  • “While Daddy was setting up the tent on our first night Mount Nebo State Park, Emily (age 4) was awed by the owl we were hearing in the distance and marveled at all the stars shining so bright above us.  It’s these moments that make all the preparation of camping worthwhile.”
Childhood is all about discovery.

Childhood is all about discovery.

  • “The girls found an inchworm on the walk back to our camp at Petit Jean State Park. Emily really enjoyed letting it crawl all over her hands.  After I convinced her to let it go she talked about how she thought she could still see his little footprints on her hand.”
Kids love an adventure.

Kids love an adventure.

  • “The whole family spent a great evening on a sunset kayak tour with the park interpreter [at Cane Creek State Park]. We saw a beaver, several beaver lodges, lots of woodpeckers and other birds, and tons of lilypads.  It was a fun trip and the interpreter was a great guide.”
  • Today we decided to walk the short, easy ¼-mile Bear Cave Trail at Petit Jean State Park. There isn’t really a “cave” on it, but believe me, there is no disappointment about that, because the path winds you through a forest of humongous sandstone boulders. We all agreed there is a magical feeling there.
Insturctions: Just add water!

Instructions: Just add water!

  • “The first thing the girls wanted to do when we arrived at Lake Ouachita State Park was sit in the lake in their clothes so of course, I let them. Emily’s laughing face in the picture shows just how much they enjoyed doing something silly and out of the ordinary!”
  • “Our whole family spent the afternoon exploring nature at Petit Jean State Park today. We love looking up close at woodpecker marks in tree bark, bright colors of small wildflowers, amazing patterns in the rock formations, and of course, we are excited when a lizard darts across our path! Emily wanted to catch this one for a closer look, but she never was fast enough. There are so many little science and life lessons in these moments.”
Experiencing a day of discovery.

Experiencing a day of discovery.

  • “You can rub two small sandstone or shale rocks together with water to make nature paint! We used it to make designs on our bodies today. (It’s really just mud, so it washes off with water.) If you look carefully you can find resources to make white, gray, yellow, and red paint! The girls loved that it goes on wet as one color, and it dries another color! Here is Courtney’s “tattoo” of a kayaker and kayak.”
  • “We did a little geocaching today at Cane Creek State Park! Our family is just getting into this popular hobby, but we love the thrill of a scavenger hunt that leads us to neat history and nature places we might otherwise not see. The girls love looking at the logbook to see who’s been there recently, and we like leaving our note for the next people.”

Introducing the kids to a bigger world.

Introducing the kids to a bigger world.

  • “Today all four of us took a hike on the Bench Trail at Mount Nebo State Park. Not only did we enjoy the forest and little spring-fed waterfalls, but the views off the mountain into the Arkansas River valley were incredible. We took time to just sit and stare at Arkansas’s beauty.”
  • Evenings together around the campfire, like the one we had tonight at Petit Jean State Park, are one our family’s favorite things about camping in Arkansas State Parks. We do different things to pass the time, including tending the fire, cooking over it, reading aloud, telling jokes, talking about the day’s adventures, and of course, roasting marshmallows and making s’mores!

I just made our reservations for this year at Daisy State Park on Lake Greeson, and we’re looking forward to sharing all these traditions again and making new ones to add to our list.

* * *

State park interpreters in over 25 locations have scheduled daily programs during Arkansas Spring Break 2010, and quite a few actually have programs scheduled throughout the month to also accommodate different spring break dates from neighboring states like Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Missouri.

Programs include guided nature hikes, kayak tours, arts and crafts, hands-on workshops, historic site tours, and much more. Programs are scheduled at different times throughout the day, with additional evening activities such as night hikes, campfires, and owl prowls. In addition, many historic state park sites offer daily tours. Most programs are free of charge. Those requiring fees include most lake cruises, kayak tours, and site tours. Fees are minimal in most cases.

Park Finder Map:

Every town in the Natural State has at least one state park within an hour’s drive! CLICK HERE to see a Park Finder map.

Online Calendar of Events:

You can also check out our online calendar of events to see what’s scheduled at your local park, or to help plan a day or overnight trip to a park further from home. CLICK HERE to find a program that fits your schedule. You can customize your search by date, park location, city, zip code, and keyword (such as “kayak,” “hike,” “archeology,” or “birding”).

Besides scheduled, interpreter-led programs the State Parks of Arkansas provide facilities and settings for plenty of things you can do on your own in the parks, including geocaching, hiking, mountain biking, watching wildlife, studying Arkansas history, exploring nature and history exhibits in our visitor centers, and more.

Additional resources:

Parents wanting additional resources for year-round outdoor activity ideas might check out the following Web sites:

No matter what your family does this year during Spring Break, remember, your Arkansas State Parks are here for you. Make plans now to visit one soon.

School’s Out, State Parks Are In! Arkansas Spring Break 2010

Sarah Keating, Asst. Park Superintendent

Sarah Keating, Asst. Park Superintendent

Sarah Keating has been stationed at Lake Dardanelle State Park since 2001. She is currently Assistant Park Superintendent, and preceded that by six years as a Park Interpreter there. Sarah has also worked at Crater of Diamonds, Withrow Springs, and Lake Fort Smith. Sarah holds a bachelors degree in park resource management from Kansas State University. She is also an NAI Certified Heritage Interpreter and Trainer. Each fall she serves as an adjunct professor of Interpretive Methods  and Interpretive Field Studies at Arkansas Tech University. Most importantly, she works hard to ensure that her family goes camping in Arkansas State Parks as often as possible!


Because words can’t describe…

March 11, 2010

Instead of a regular post today we decided to leave you with a lovely visit to The Lodge at Mount Magazine State Park.

The Lodge at Mount Magazine opened in the Spring of 2006 and is one of the great vacation attractions of Arkansas. All rooms and cabins have a view off the bluff-line overlooking the Petit Jean River Valley and Blue Mountain Lake. All cabins have a hot tub on the deck with the same view. Amenities include the Skycrest Restaurant, Conference center, free broadband internet access, indoor pool and fitness center, business center and gift shop.

Also in the park are miles of hiking trails including the Signal Hill Trail which takes you to the highest point in Arkansas. A state-of-the-art Visitor Center greats visitors with exhibits of the mountains’ natural and cultural history and wildlife viewing areas. The park is also known for its wonderful programs that immerse you into the flora and fauna of the mountain. A slow drive through the park should include the Cameron’s Bluff Drive which has several overlooks.

Besides the lodge and cabins the park has a beautiful modern campground. Reservations can be made online or by calling 1-479-963-8502 for the campground or 1-877-MM-Lodge for the lodge and cabins. We look forward to your next visit.


Going Prehistoric!

February 26, 2010

Big Piles of Dirt

Mound A is the tallest mound in Arkansas at approximately 49 ½ ft tall. That’s almost the size of a 5 story building. Mound B is 39 ½ ft tall and mound c is 10-12 ft. tall. It has been estimated that it would take approximately 753,280 baskets full of dirt to make mound A.

Mound A is the tallest mound in Arkansas at approximately 49 ½ ft tall. That’s almost the size of a 5 story building. Mound B is 39 ½ ft tall and mound c is 10-12 ft. tall. It has been estimated that it would take approximately 753,280 baskets full of dirt to make mound A.

An almost five story tall prehistoric mound sits before me. As I watch the sunset over the ceremonial grounds I stare in awe over the ingenuity of the people that once lived here.  Contemplating this huge mound, I start thinking about how visitors describe the mounds at first sight. “Those are some big piles of dirt.” Calling them big piles of dirt is an oversimplification.

Along with chard sticks baskets were used as a prehistoric mound building tool.

Along with chard sticks baskets were used as a prehistoric mound building tool.

First impressions we have about prehistoric American Indians is that they are primitive, simple really. Even in commercials you hear “So easy a caveman can do it.” This implies that a person who lived long ago could only do the simplest of things. I thought back on what “simple” things the people of prehistoric times would have done. Building a mound requires dirt to be built up in a pile. That is an easy concept. Making it flat or round on top, well that’s simple too. Sure the people long ago could do the simplest things. Instead of seeing these people as simple here at Toltec Mounds Archeological State Park you have to take a big step back and arrange the whole picture. The Plum Bayou People, over 900 years ago, were able to construct monumental and lasting earthworks that still stand today.

Solstices and Equinoxes

The Great Pyramids in Egypt, Stonehenge in England, Mayan Pyramids in Mexico…these are the outstanding places you think of when you hear solstice or equinox. The ancient peoples around the world built these amazing and mysterious wonders. Hundreds of visitors flock to these destinations every year to admire a piece of prehistory.

America is too young to have such great wonders of the world. Or is it? These mounds at Toltec Mounds Archeological State Park tell us the same thing.  They aren’t in shapes of little heads or tables but they tell the same stories. The prehistoric American Indians that lived here not only built these huge mounds, but they also put them in certain spots to create a way to tell about the solstices and Equinoxes. Our own trailblazers have been in your back yard this whole time.

Visitors enjoying the sunset behind Mound A to mark the Fall Equinox.

Visitors enjoying the sunset behind Mound A to mark the Fall Equinox.

Come out and see this for yourself. The park lets people come experience these actual events and see our own piece of prehistory.

After studying the mounds I concluded that a truer statement should be “So easy a modern man can do it.” Prehistoric American Indians simply did do it. Easy is a huge understatement. It would truly be easy for the modern man but let’s see modern man build these mounds the way they are without books, internet, and engineering tools…and have them last over 900 years!

Amy Griffin, Park Interpreter

Amy Griffin, Park Interpreter

Amy holds a bachelors degree in Parks and Recreation from Arkansas Tech University. Her career in Arkansas state parks started as a seasonal interpreterin 2006 at DeGray Lake State Park. She is currently a park interpreter at Toltec Mounds Archeological Park and has worked there since 2007. She is also a member of the National Association of Interpreters and a Certified Interpretive Guide.


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.