When Chris Pistole, park interpreter at Hobbs State Park-Conservation Area, calls a reporter on Saturday, he's just come back to the office after leading a wildflower walk. He's the slightest bit winded and confesses the day was warmer than he expected it to be. But that doesn't dampen his enthusiasm: After a yearlong hiatus, Hobbs has resumed in-person programming, and Pistole couldn't be happier about it.
"So far, with just doing programs last weekend and then yesterday and today, I would say it seems like people are so hungry for getting back to some normalcy," he says. "Some interaction and being able to get out of the house and do things. The trails were always open and available, but we like to think that we add a lot more to that experience by having the in-person interpretation. People can ask us questions, and we can share the things we're passionate about and the special things about each of our different sites. We're just so glad to be able to do this again while we're still helping to conquer the virus."
Take the Wildflower Walk Pistole just completed: Participants wore masks and observed social distancing. Attendance was limited for Pistole's tour, a short, easy walk along a stream as he shares his knowledge culled from working over three decades in state parks.
"We talk about the signs of spring, especially focusing on the beautiful wildflowers," Pistole explains. "And we learn a little bit of the natural history of the flowers. We also learn a little bit about the historical uses of some of the plants, for food or medicine -- what people in the Ozarks would have traditionally used them for. We also tie in pollinators, how flowers are needed for the pollinators and how bees and butterflies and some other pollinators are really having a difficult time now. At the end, we encourage people to find native plant nurseries where they live and to try to take at least a corner of their yard to plant native wildflowers and plants to benefit the pollinators."
That call to action, says Pistole, is present in all of the events sponsored by Hobbs State Park.
"We definitely try to let them know what it is they can do to help, especially if the habitat or plant or animal is in need of some TLC."
While in-person programming was halted in mid-March last year, Pistole says that park employees worked hard to provide alternative, virtual programming in an effort to stay connected to the community. Pistole contributed a variety of short videos to the Arkansas State Parks Digital Discovery page, posted photo essays and worked on videos for Flipgrid, a video website utilized by many schools while students are studying virtually from home.
"If there's a silver lining to what we've had to do during this time, it's that we got to go back and look at some of our programs we've done in the past," he says. "Often, we're so busy that we don't get a chance to evaluate what works and what we could do better. So we worked on revamping some of our programs for when we could return to in-person programming. We've got such great resources here, and it's sometimes a struggle to find the time to spend on doing surveys: 'What are the plants and animals that we have here? What can we do to better improve the habitat?' So we spent some time doing those sorts of things, as well. We've stayed busy -- we haven't just been sitting back and waiting.
"We've made good use of our time, and I feel good about what we were able to accomplish."
For more information on upcoming Hobbs State Park-Conservation Area programming, visit arkansasstateparks.com.