When warm weather comes the folks at Hungry Mother State Park want youth to get outside and discover nature for their own good.
Many young people today are unfamiliar with what those just a generation ago took for granted: playing outside. From tromping through the woods and catching crawdads in the creeks to making things from sticks and grass and dirt, Mother Nature offers a bounty of fun and learning.
Park Manager Nate Clark said doctors, including Governor Ralph Northam, prescribe outside play for improving children’s health and well-being.
“It’s a relatively new initiative for our agency,” he said of a new park project.
To bring today’s kids into contact with the natural world around them, park staff, volunteers and youth groups have constructed The Park of the Red Fox Discovery Area at the site of the former Civilian Conservation Corps camp. It will open in the spring.
The natural play and discovery area includes structures built in the shape of a fox paw and each pad on the paw will have a theme of animals and nature along with a variety of activities and materials with which to build things, whatever the child might imagine.
“It’s a natural play area, not to tell kids how to play but give them the chance to use their creativity and imagination,” said Tanya Hall, chief ranger of visitor experience, to use nature to make toys and be hands-on with natural materials.
“It’s a nature-theme play and discovery area to get kids outside and connecting with nature,” said Hall. “Even 15 minutes to be outside helps their concentration and learning ability. It helps with myopia and depression.”
The idea is to provide an area of discovery for kids of all abilities, added Clark. “It’s a really cool project and we’re real excited about it.”
Hall said the park received funding and participation for the discovery site from the Garden Club of Virginia, Holston River Chapter Virginia Master Naturalists, and Friends of Hungry Mother State Park to construct the site. Local businesses have loaned equipment and lots of volunteers have helped.
A group of young men in the Virginia Youth Conservation Corps program was the first group to work on the site last summer. Other groups have included community volunteers and students from Emory & Henry College. A grand opening is being planned for Kids to Parks Day in May.
“We couldn’t have done it without the volunteers and the Friends and maintenance staff,” Clark said. “There are a few similar sites in other parks, but this is the only one in this area and it’s unique.”
It is a new concept in recent years, the non-traditional play area with a shift toward discovery, getting dirty, playing in the mud and having fun, Clark said.
“One of the rewarding parts of this is doing something new and seeing kids enjoying it,” he said.
At a November 2018 meeting of the county board of supervisors, Clark said that the park offered more than 600 educational programs in 2018 with 17,000+ participants.
“That’s a lot of kids. That’s a lot of kids’ smiles we get to see,” he said.
County Administrator Michael Carter praised the park and Clark and his crew, saying that when the county has economic development prospects visiting, one of his first calls is to Nate. The park, Carter said, impresses visitors. You “can’t measure the impact,” he said.
Work also begins this year on replacing the footbridge to the island amphitheater.
The bridge was built in the early 1970s by park rangers and has held up well, said Clark, but needs to be updated to current standards and made ADA compliant. The General Assembly in 2016 designated funds – about a million dollars - to replace the bridge, and Clark said he and his staff have worked with the Virginia State Parks Department of Conservation and Recreation to design a bridge as close to the current one as possible.
The structure will be reinforced with concrete and steel, but those elements will be mostly hidden by wood so that the new bridge will look very similar to the current bridge. Clark said it will have the same silhouette as now which is so popular with park visitors.
The image of the bridge is iconic to the park, used in wedding photos and through all seasons. Because of this, the park wants the bridge to look the same, Clark said.
“They clearly did a fabulous job,” said Clark of the builders of the bridge, “because the bridge is still there almost 50 years later.” Various repairs have been made over the years and the bridge has aged with time. The main area of repair needed is the support posts.
Clark said he is still waiting on final approvals and anticipates bids going out by the end of the summer. Work is expected to begin in late October or early November, after leaf season. Construction is anticipated to take maybe five months, which includes some of the work being done off-site, and be completed before the season opens in May 2020.
“We’re excited. It’s a needed repair and replacement,” Clark said. “It’s a great project and will be neat to see it done. It’s going to be a big project and we will celebrate the opening of the new bridge.”