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Learning nature's ways

Chloe the Speckled King Snake made dozens of human friends Saturday morning while welcoming visitors to the grand reopening of the Isle du Bois unit’s newly renovated Nature Center.

Meeting the sociable serpent was one of many outdoor activities hosted by park rangers in celebration of the updated attraction. Fishing practice, nature hikes, and arts and crafts were also a part of the morning festivities.

“The new Nature Center’s been in the planning phases for a little over a year,” park ranger Rick Torres said. “It’s been an awesome long-term project that turned out really cool. We’re very happy with it.”

The old Nature Center closed in February, and renovations began shortly thereafter. The building underwent a complete makeover: floors, paint, exhibits, activities, artifacts and displays. The Nature Center’s fresh look was largely a collaborative effort, and interpretive planners Eric Ray and Stephen Harmon came up from Austin to help with the behind-the-scenes planning and design process.

“We’ve given the whole place a facelift; it has professionally made, museum quality exhibits now,” Isle du Bois Superintendent Mark Stewart said. “We have things that we haven’t had in the past, like the replica Clovis tip we’ve got in there. We’ve also added some new hands-on activities, and we think it’s going to be a lot of fun for everybody.”

Visitors appeared to be having fun as families flooded into the Nature Center’s open doors. Kids and adults alike couldn’t resist draping themselves in the assorted animal pelts, creating makeshift fans and crowns out of bird feathers, and “ooh-ing” and “ahh-ing” at the various fossils and skulls lining the shelves. Although the space is small, it’s brimming with information, which Bridgeport City Council member and State Senate candidate Kevin Lopez said is important.

“State parks are incredibly valuable resources,” Lopez said. “It’s essential we teach our kids about the environment and about the impact we can have on it. We also love the family time we get here; it’s a great way to spend time with the kids.”

Lopez and his son Kellen have a goal to try to visit every state park in Texas. He also said he’d like to see more money invested in state parks, which he believes will positively affect the economies of the surrounding communities and counties by boosting the tourism industry. As for Isle du Bois’s new Nature Center, both he and Kellen were impressed.

“It’s great,” Lopez said. “We love it. The way they have it all broken down here is really outstanding.”

They weren’t the only ones enjoying themselves. Outside of the Nature Center, 8-year-old twins Arawynn and Xavier Carey were busy making colorful paper snakes at the arts-and-crafts table. Arawynn’s snake, vibrantly colored sassy shades of hot pink and purple, ended up developing a crush on Ranger Rick.

The kids’ mom, McKenna Carey, laughed and said that she wasn’t surprised: She and the twins often come to the lake to watch Ranger Rick’s nature presentations. They’ve all been excited about the new Nature Center, and it did not disappoint, she said.

“They’ve been entertained all morning,” Carey said. “We love coming out here and seeing what there is to learn; it’s always a fun time, and very informational.”

The Nature Center is regularly open every weekend from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays, Sundays and the occasional Friday. If visitors want to come outside of those times, Ranger Rick says not to worry. They can swing by the ranger’s station, and if he’s on duty, he might just give a private tour.

“This is your Nature Center,” he said. “It’s your place to come and hang out and learn.”

Inside the center are an array of interactive activities and walls filled with information about Texas parks and wildlife.

The exhibits are usually manned by park rangers, park hosts and volunteers from Texas Master Naturalists, an organization dedicated to “developing a corps of well-informed volunteers that provide education, outreach, and service dedicated to the beneficial management of natural resources within their communities for the state of Texas,” according to the AgriLife Extension Office’s website

Everyone who visits Isle du Bois is welcome to visit the Nature Center for no additional fee. It’s next to the park entrance, across from the parking lot and to the right.

“We want to encourage everybody to invite people out to visit,” Stewart said. “Learn about the environment we have here. We’re excited to see you. We’re excited for people to come out, whether it be to visit the Nature Center or to go down to the beach and play for the day.”

As morning melted into afternoon, bright-eyed visitors began to leave, and the rangers and volunteers began cleanup. Chloe the snake was placed back in her terrarium inside the Nature Center, and Ranger Rick thanked his team once again for their hard work and dedication.

“We wanted to have this event to invite everybody out to come see our new Nature Center and have some fun with us,” he said. “If folks want to know more about what makes both Texas and nature special, this is the place to do it.”

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