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Walk on wild side at Panola State Park

By Jason A. Smith

jsmith@henryherald.com

Officials at Panola Mountain State Park say one of their featured activities for the summer provides people with a unique opportunity to learn about wildlife in a "hands-on" way.

The park, in Stockbridge, is offering a Walk on the Wild Side Night Hike each Thursday, through the month of August. Participants are given tours of a restricted area of the facility, where they can see swamps and forests, while listening to the sounds of several nocturnal creatures. In addition, hikers are able to learn about a number of topics, including wildlife, land erosion and various types of animals.

Park naturalist, Brian Bentley, oversees the tours and said he first became interested in the park's offerings while attending night hikes in the area as a child. Bentley said walking through the park is often an eye-opening experience for those who take the opportunity to do so. "They don't know there are things like native grasslands, or that many of them are actually in danger."

He said many people are also surprised to see otters, beavers, foxes and fireflies along the hike's trail. Officials, he said, are quick to remind night hikers the focus at the park is on conservation. As such, no hunting is allowed.

As for the acres of trees and grasslands at the park, Bentley said the hike allows people to get a glimpse of what the area looked like once upon a time. "This whole area was farmland, and we're restoring it back to how it should be."

Omar Blades, 13, of McDonough, went on last week's hike with several friends and family members. Having lived in the South for only a few years, he said walking the trail was a "new and exciting" experience for him. "We used to live in New York, and there are not a lot of wooded areas there."

Though he had never been on such a hike prior to Thursday, Blades said he is eagerly anticipating his next visit to Panola Mountain.

One of the subjects covered during last week's hike was that of non-native, invasive plants, those that out-grow native grasses and wildlife in a harmful way. This phenomenon largely served as motivation for 50-year-old librarian, Kathryn Enniss, to add Panola Mountain State Park to her growing list of sites to visit.

"I'm very interested in ... invasive plants," she said. "I see them taking over [in] a lot of places, and I don't like it. If you go up to North Carolina, you'll see kudzu taking over huge mountainsides."

Enniss said she found the night hike to be "interesting and engaging," and said more local residents - particularly young people - should take the opportunity to walk the trail at the park.

One such individual, who did participate in last week's adventure on the trail, was 13-year-old Cameron Crawford-Mook, of Decatur. Cameron, who brought a friend along for the occasion, said the hike gave her a glimpse into a new world. "It's really cool to see the outdoors," said the teenager. "We don't get to see that much in the city. I was surprised at how close it was [to my home]. It took us ... 20 minutes to get here."

Crawford-Mook said another reason she wanted to go on the hike, is that she wanted learn more about the world around her. She said people would do well to become more ecologically conscious. "Our world's, like, going in the dumps," Cameron said. "There's trash all over the place. We just need to take care of [the environment] more."

Her mother, Sharon Mook, agrees with her daughter. She said technology and the computer age have contributed to a "nature deficit," which the night hike helps to minimize. "I think it's very important that [people experience the outdoors], so that they know a little more of what the real world is like, and not just ... the asphalt world."

Jody Rice, resource manager for the park, said the night-hike program has been "successful" over the years. He said walking the trail meets hikers' needs on "emotional, physical and spiritual" levels. "The majority of people today are not connected with nature. They don't have that intimacy."

Night hikes are held from 7:30 p.m., to 9 p.m. The cost for admission is $5, plus a $3 parking fee. For more information, visit http://www.gastateparks.org/info/panolamt/.