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Hiking in the new year

Area residents turn out for first day hike at Ray Roberts Lake

Close to 200 hikers showed up on the first of the year at the Ray Roberts Lake State Park to embark on a 2.2-mile hike along the Randy Bell Scenic Trail as part of the First Day Hike nationwide initiative.

Babies, kids, teens and adults all bundled up in hoodies, hiking jackets and beanies, with water bottles and hiking sticks in hand, weaving in and out of the woods as they hiked the paved trail during a cloudy and relatively cold day.

Maintenance Specialist Brenna Seron led one of the two groups through the woods, explaining everything from the flora, waterfowl and fauna to the prescribed fires that recently took place in certain areas of the park.

“It’s the best part of this job,” she said, as she was leading the way. “I got to be part of it, and I got to light some of them up too!”

The prescribed fires, which took place Dec. 18-20, are necessary for the park’s ecosystem to flourish. They control certain plants and encourage the growth of others. It also helps manipulate the vegetation of the park for the benefit of the wildlife.

Seron has been a park ranger at the state park for over two years. She has worked specifically with the Green Belt Trail for a little over a year. This was Seron’s first time leading a First Day Hike, and she was very impressed with the turnout.

“I was not expecting this many people,” she said. “I was actually expecting somewhere around 40 to 50 people.

“I’ve done a few other interpretive programs here, you know, usually to help out our actual interpreter who is unfortunately out sick. But, you know, so I’ve done like the snake program, I’ve helped him out on a few historical hikes as well as helping out with the Dutch oven cookout and things like that.”

Seron was the lead interpreter for the second group that embarked on the hike. She stopped and explained, at various spots along the way, the ecoregion and the state of the park in general, including the program to monitor bird nesting in the park each spring.

The park has 45 birdhouses that it uses to monitor bird populations. They then send that information to Cornell University, which collects data nationwide in order to provide information on which populations are decreasing or increasing.

“If you go to the state park website, you’ll be able to find blueprints to build your own birdhouse,” she yelled, so that everyone could hear her. “What is cool about this program? Well, if you build your own birdhouse at home, you too can participate in the data monitoring by sending your information to Cornell University.”

Jessica Ward and her six-year-old daughter Sophia Ward are active hikers and have been to the Ray Roberts Lake park many times but never on the first of the year. This year, though, they decided to make the drive from Whitesboro to participate in their first New Year’s hike at Ray Roberts.

“We love to hike, and we love the Texas parks,” she said. “Me and my daughter decided to come and be a part of the hike. We usually like to hike Juniper Trail, which is by Lake Texoma. We have hiked here, but this is the first guided hike we’ve done on the first of the year.”

Ward said it’s a great opportunity to start the year being active.

“Being outdoors is amazing,” she said. “Being outdoors is the best past time ever. You get to come out and move your body and be active, and also, you get to see everything the park has to offer. You get to learn about the wildlife that might be out here and the ecosystem. And you get to do it with other people as well.”

The event, which began back in 1992 as an initiative to get people active and to the parks on the first day of the year, has become really popular across the nation. The hikes became even more popular around 2012, and since then the number of people that decide to start their new year outside has grown.

According to the non-profit, more than 55,000 people made it out to a park on the first day of the new year and hiked over 33,000 miles across the nation on guided hikes at state parks last year.

Sam Knox, maintenance specialist III at the park, has done the First Day Hike seven times at seven different parks.

He says the amount of people that have shown up every year has exponentially grown since its beginnings.

“We’re statewide, and we’re seeing this kind of turnout in just about every park. It’s something that’s encouraged in every park. Some parks don’t have the staff to do this, but I’d say 90 percent of the parks will do a first day hike.”

The First Day Hike events are usually led by very knowledgeable park rangers and staff. The distance and rigor of the hike varies from park to park, and some even include a 5K or 10K run. Regardless, the hikes are aimed to bring in families of all ages to enjoy everything the state parks have to offer.

“It’s awesome,” Knox said. “It’s really a cool idea. When it first started, we were thinking nobody was going to come out to a park on the first day of the year and get outdoors. Normally, the weather is not that great but, like today, it’s turned out great. It’s an awesome way to get people to come out to the parks that normally wouldn’t come out, especially when they see a turnout like the one today.”

Diana Couch and her dog Kaipo made the drive from Dallas but didn’t know the hike was going to take place. She ended up learning about it at the entrance of the park.

“It was a great experience,” she said as the hike came to an end. “We did the first hike on our own and this one together [with the rest of the crowd]. We enjoy it because, you know, it’s nice to be around people and know that there are people that enjoy nature even after partying.

“We liked the fact that someone was actually giving us some information about this place. It’s our first visit here, so we don’t know much about it. When we have time, we just go check out a new place and try to enjoy something new. Especially here in Texas, there is so much to see and explore.”

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