By Jeff Keeling
Under the shade of mature hardwood trees, a verdant wetland spreading in front of them, two dozen day campers stood transfixed last Thursday. Johnson City Parks and Recreation Naturalist Connie Deegan had done it again, spying a five-foot black rat snake perched just off the trail at Jacob’s Nature Park at Sinking Creek on day four of a weeklong “Habitat Explorers” day camp.
It was a highlight of a great week for Sithvak Ramu, a rising fourth grader from Woodland Elementary who, along with nearly all his co-campers, eagerly petted the snake when his turn came.
“I’m more into snakes than any other animal,” Ramu said. “I’ve learned a lot about them – constrictors and venomous and more types.”
Habitat Explorers allowed children ages 7-12 the chance to discover the numerous creatures that call Johnson City’s parks home – frogs, salamanders, insects, spiders and snakes among them. Led by Deegan, campers paid special attention to specifically where such animals live. It was the first of five weeklong nature camps for that age group sponsored by the city’s Parks and Recreation department and led by Deegan. Students are enjoying a “Wildlife Detectives” camp this week.
After carefully releasing the snake, Deegan led her charges further into the newest city park’s 29 acres, up a forested slope. Soon, the group had gathered around Deegan to learn about the habits of a frog she’d discovered on the forest floor. Campers’ hands shot up as the youngsters looked to answer questions put by Deegan about facts they had learned during the week.
Ramu, who said he, “likes the outdoors more than the indoors because you can explore more things than inside,” said the camp has been one of the highlights of his summer break so far. He’s preparing for a science competition, and the hands-on experience helps, he said.
“I’m hoping to see a lot of critters, such as frogs, toads, sometimes salamanders, crayfish and a lot more snakes.”
Olivia Subijana just finished the fourth grade, also at Woodland. “I really just like exploring stuff,” she said as the group trekked higher up a slope dominated by shagbark hickory, beech and other large, mature hardwoods.
“I’ve learned about the American frog and other animals, and I find it really enjoyable because of all the animals I can see.”
The trip to Jacob’s Park was a major hit, judging by the childrens’ enthusiasm. The park, located one-half mile east of Mountain View Elementary on King Springs Road, will have a permanent bridge installed across Sinking Creek this fall. Currently, to get from the wetland area to the wooded section, visitors must cross an eight-by-eight-inch beam aided by a rope handle.
Bill Francisco, who has led efforts to develop the park along with Boone Watershed Partnership, said engineering plans are under way for the bridge, which will be at the downstream (east) end of the park. Parks and Recreation staff will oversee construction, which is set to be done using inmate labor to reduce cost. Much work remains, Francisco said: “We still have an outdoor classroom, entrance and boardwalk to build.”
To learn more about the park and how to help its development, visit jacobfrancisco.com. Information on Parks and Rec summer camps can be found by visiting johnsoncitytn.com/parksrec/ and clicking on the summer camps icon.
Photos by Jeff Keeling