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WATCH: Nature center puts state’s wonders on display

by Corbet Deary | July 3, 2022 at 4:03 a.m.
This gar is one of many live fish on display at the Witt Stephens Central Arkansas Nature Center. - Photo by Corbet Deary of The Sentinel-Record

Outdoor writer and photographer Corbet Deary is featured regularly in The Sentinel-Record. Today, Deary takes readers on a journey to Witt Stephens Jr. Central Arkansas Nature Center.

I suppose it would be safe to suggest that with the month of June came unseasonably high temperatures. Granted, we've had a few breaks from the sultry conditions, here and there.

But one should bear in mind that the summer solstice was just a few days ago. That being said, we should prepare ourselves for at least a couple more months of daytime highs nearing or exceeding the century mark. Add high humidity into the equation, and we're looking at brutal heat indexes.

So what to do during these times when the daytime highs are far from tolerable? Well, we have a few options. I suppose we could simply tough it out, and take the needed steps to remain hydrated during our excursions. Or we could limit our outings to shortly after daylight and maybe an hour or so before dark.

However, there is yet another alternative that one might consider during the brunt of summer. There are Arkansas Game and Fish Commission facilities throughout the state, nine to be exact, where one can get better acquainted with the wonderful outdoors in a controlled environment.

Don't get me wrong -- nothing can replace kicking around in the midst of Mother Nature. However, I'll also be the first to suggest a visit to one of the AGFC nature centers, strategically located throughout various regions of the state.

These facilities are designed to educate and entertain. And I can't think of a better time to plan a visit than during the hottest season of the year when intense heat blankets our forests and waterways.

It just so happens that the Witt Stephens Jr. Central Arkansas Nature Center is situated within an hour of Hot Springs. Located practically on the banks of the Arkansas River, in downtown Little Rock, this particular facility is one that has beckoned my presence on a number of occasions. In fact, I stopped by the nature center during a recent trip to the city.

I suspect those with a passion for wildlife will immediately be intrigued upon entering the building, as they will notice a couple of live exhibits of native turtles directly to their right.

I suppose we've pretty much all seen these native reptile species in the wild. However, one is hardly allowed a chance to get a good look at them prior to their escape into the depths and out of sight.

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However, those that are on display lend to an opportunity to actually study these animals and get better acquainted with specific characteristics of that particular species. In fact, those who visit the facility will have the opportunity to learn the physical differences in common and alligator snapping turtles.

One is also apt to notice the alligator in the enclosure that is situated within a few feet of the reception desk. Of course, this is a small specimen, in comparison to what I have seen lurking in the murky waters of southwest Arkansas. However, this particular display does lend to the opportunity to get a close-up view.

Continuing into the large exhibit hall, those who found the turtles and gator of interest will likely be drawn to the right, as a huge aquarium is located along the wall.

The exhibit is impressive, to say the least, as it leads visitors through replicas of what their website refers to as "a continuous series of habitats." And one will have the opportunity to see live fish species that thrive in each environment.

I am most familiar with the Ozark Plateau and Ouachita Mountains exhibits, as I have spent pretty much all of my life kicking around in these environments. However, I have not remotely spent as much time in the Arkansas River, Coastal Plains and Mississippi Delta. And, in turn, these exhibits are most intriguing.

One might also consider watching the 10-minute multimedia presentation. The movie focuses on the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and the agency's role in conservation.

After taking in the movie, one might find it interesting to check out the trapper's cabin. I always find this exhibit somewhat enlightening, as it is a reminder of an era of time when folks only owned what was necessary to survive.

Those who enjoy fishing are apt to find themselves mesmerized by the fishing lure exhibit. The display literally covers an entire wall, sporting antique lures, many of which are models that I have never seen.

The Witt Stephens Jr. Central Arkansas Nature Center also shares interesting information pertaining to the three major divisions of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. Each display case highlights a specific division and its role in the agency.

The law enforcement exhibit gives a brief history and several interesting facts about the game wardens. Of course, these officers can be found patrolling from their vehicles and boats. But the AGFC law enforcement division also sports a dive team. And their K-9 program has proven an effective means of enforcing game laws, as well.

The Wildlife Management display provides visitors with information pertaining to the agency's efforts in managing our native wildlife. Their tasks go far deeper than simply gathering data from live specimens, as they must be aware of proper habitat and productive regulations.

The Fisheries exhibit focuses on the responsibility of managing our streams, rivers and lakes in a fashion that is most beneficial to Arkansas' fish populations.

I have experienced the opportunity, on several occasions, to spend a day with a fisheries biologist. And I can say with all certainty that their work is essential in ensuring that our waterways remain bountiful.

Let's not forget the Bald Eagle exhibit. Unfortunately, this display does not include live raptors. Instead, a mounted species is encased in plexiglass, lending to a bird's-eye view of one of these incredible raptors.

In fact, those who have never seen a bald eagle from an up-close perspective might find this display the most interesting of all, as it is somewhat enlightening to see how huge beaks, large feet and talons deem them a masterful predator.

One might also consider spending a few minutes browsing the gift shop prior to bidding farewell to the Witt Stephens Jr. Central Arkansas Nature Center. Not only might one find a souvenir but the gift shop also stocks various nature-related books. In fact, I have purchased a couple of field guides from this facility, throughout the years.

I think most would agree that the summertime heat is capable of putting a damper on one's activity level in the wonderful outdoors. However, even on the hottest day, we can find comfort in the Witt Stephens Jr. Central Arkansas Nature Center.

To get to the Nature Center, from Hot Springs take Highway 70 east for approximately 17 miles and take Interstate 30 east toward Little Rock. Go 27 miles and take the Ninth and Sixth street exit (Exit 140). Go 0.7 miles and turn right onto east Fourth Street. go 300 feet and take a left onto Collins Street.

Go 350 more feet and take a left onto Third Street. Travel 0.3 miles and turn right onto River Market. Go 0.2 miles, turn right and the facility will be on the left.

  photo  Those who enjoy fishing are also apt to appreciate the lure display at the Witt Stephens Jr. Central Arkansas Nature Center. - Photo by Corbet Deary of The Sentinel-Record

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