With thousands of acres of wildlife refuges along Lake Pontchartrain and the Bogue Chitto River, the Northshore is known for its natural beauty.
The volunteers at one small park near Mandeville are working to provide opportunities for people to get involved and develop a deeper understanding of the local ecosystem. At the Northlake Nature Center, that appreciation begins with children.
Battling mosquitos, poison ivy and the intense summer heat, volunteers pumped up a group of about ten kids for a field trip on a recent weekend. Executive director Rue McNeill held up a colorful poster and described some of the wildlife at the park.
“These are some really interesting creatures that we have at the Northlake Nature Center and if you see any of these, that’s a bonus!” she explained, going on to describe the lizards, tree frogs, opossums and beaver that all live within the 400 acre nature preserve.
The Northlake Nature Center was founded in 1982 in order to provide hiking areas and environmental education on the Northshore. Unlike most state and locally-run parks, the center is an independent, community-run non-profit. It’s dedicated to public education and outreach.
Northlake has an interesting history. The organization leased part of the property from the state, and the ruins of former governor Richard Leche’s never-finished golf course and clubhouse can be found along one of the trails. An archeological survey also revealed remnants of Native American communities in the area more than 700 years ago.
McNeill got involved in the 1990s as a volunteer and now works as the only paid employee of the park. She said the diversity of the 400 acre preserve makes it unusual. “We’ve got forest areas, we have swamp lands, we have wetlands, we have pine forests we’re developing in the back,” said McNeill. “You see grasslands. We see a lot of things out here that you would have to go to four or five different places to see.”
The park, which features eight miles of trails and a thriving longleaf pine forest, is quirky. McNeill and some other volunteers made concrete sculptures with mosaics that identify the different tree types and named the walking paths unusual names that hint at their goal to provide an experiential environment, such as the “Acclimatization Trail.” Other signs encourage visitors to attune to their senses and “experience the environment.”
McNeill believes strongly in the benefits of a sensory experience of being in nature and wants to share that with youth.
During the field trip, a handful of kids piled onto a little wooden bridge and stuck their heads though the railing to look for a baby turtle in the water below. McNeill encouraged them to quietly observe so that the turtles would not be scared off, explaining how their favorite place to sunbathe happened to be a tree that had fallen during Hurricane Katrina.
Helping children and adults to understand the nuanced relationships in natural environments is a big part of their goal at Northlake.
Volunteer Susan Burch said it can be mind-opening. “They see trees, some of them have fallen down, and they can see that there are animals that live in a tree that is rotting. Or they see woodpeckers that are living in a tree that is dead but we don’t chop it down because that’s the perfect place for a woodpecker — that’s what they want. So they get a broader view of the world.”
Marc Galbreth brought his children on the field trip and said he was happy to see his boy enjoying nature; a lot of their friends are afraid to get dirty. “Not my kids! They roll around in dirt, we have sand at our house and they’re doing back flips in the sand — whereas city kids, they’re not getting dirty,” said Galbreth. He said that was part of the reason he and his family moved to Slidell, “They’re more exposed to the outside, and I love that. I don’t like my kids being inside every day.”
The kids in this particular group all go to Children’s College in Slidell, a preschool run by Nargis Akhtar. She brings a group to the nature center every year, and says the experience not only makes them more attuned to nature and the seasons, but also makes them more perceptive and patient. “When you go to the zoo, you don’t really get a chance to look down at the ground and observe things. So I find that this is really important for the children.”
She likes to bring them right before the school year starts, with the hope that they continue to pay close attention to their surroundings and the changing seasons.
McNeill said the center reaches about 30,000 people each year through programs ranging from moonlight hikes to birdwatching. “I’d just like to introduce the Northlake Nature Center to as many people as I can so that they can feel the wonderful feeling that it is just to take a walk in the woods,” said McNeill.
She added that though the park is small, visitors never get bored. Volunteers continue to survey the area and find new species of plants every year, like crane-fly orchid and spike mosses.
McNeill said, even on the hottest of summer days: “You’re still going to go home and say, ‘I want to go back!’”
The Northshore Focus is made possible with support from the Northshore Community Foundation, a center for philanthropy in the Northshore region. More at NorthshoreFoundation.org