CHEAHA STATE PARK — A cool breeze swirled through the trees at Alabama’s highest point as 40 kids gathered for the second of four Wild Wednesdays — an environmental education program for children.
“Leave No Trace” was the mantra Cheaha State Park naturalist Mandy Pearson preached to the kids.
“Leave No Trace is encouraging people to appreciate the wonderful gem that we have of nature but also to be good stewards of the land and to encourage them to take care of it while they have fun in it and take care of it for many generations to come,” Pearson said before the program began.
Pearson entertained the kids as she laid out the seven principles of Leave No Trace:
— Plan ahead and prepare
— Travel and camp on durable surfaces
— Dispose of waste properly
— Leave what you find
— Minimize campfire impact
— Respect wildlife
— Be considerate of other visitors
Pearson said that Mount Cheaha has two significant distinctions that no other park in the state can boast. First, she told the kids, Mount Cheaha is the highest point in Alabama and pointed to the tower across the street from the pavilion where the kids were gathered.
“You are higher than anyone else in the entire state of Alabama right now,” Pearson said. Pearson said the second significant thing is that Cheaha State Park is the oldest park in the state, established 85 years ago.
Pearson asked the kids about their favorite things to do in the woods, and answers included hunting, exploring, camping, catching crawfish and finding things.
“I like finding animals,” Lilly Rosser,10, said.
Pearson told the kids how to pack a backpack to be ready for just about anything in the wild. To demonstrate, she unpacked her own backpack, describing each item one at a time: a tarp, hat, extra clothes, camp stove, water, food, rain jacket.
Pearson said rope is very important to have on hand to make a “bear hang” — which uses rope at campsites to hoist food up between trees using a rope so bears can’t get to it.
“Bears can sniff stuff a mile away, so do you think they could find your really awesome camp food?” Pearson asked the kids as a few gasps were heard. Pearson said before the program that a black bear has been seen in the park.
After the Leave No Trace lesson, Pearson led the kids on a short hike and told them to look out for colorful objects along the trail. They scrambled and competed against each other to find colorful sticks. Along the way Pearson saw a few large rocks covered in lichens.
“Lichen eats rock and poops dirt,” Pearson said as she told the kids of how lichens make dirt from rocks and that dirt is used by plants in the forest.
After the hike, the class was broken into groups of three each, and each trio was given a small piece of string to make a loop on the ground.
Pearson gave each group a loupe magnifier so the kids could spot the tiniest of living creatures found in each cordoned-off loop.
Kason Moore, 7, and his group found a slug, which he looked at intently as it crawled up his arm.
Lilly Rosser smiled as a large black ant she found raced up and down her arms like a bumper car.
After all the fun and games the kids were treated to graham cracker bears.
The next Wild Wednesdays will be at Coleman Lake on June 20.
Wild Wednesdays is sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service Shoal Creek District, the city of Heflin, Friends Of the Talladega National Forest and Cheaha State Park.