Family Fun Day at Patapsco Valley State Park

Destonnia Zeno, 9, and Domnik Cannan, 5, of Baltimore, try their skill at controlling "flames"
We don't usually get adults who want to dress up in Nomex firefighting gear, don a 45-pound backpack filled with water and line up to shoot water at faux flames in the simulated "prescribed burn" activity we offer to visitors at community fairs, town festivals and other public functions. Soldiers Delight Conservation, Inc., the Friends group for Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area in Owings Mills, loves to display the many attributes of our sensitive and oh-so-unique habitat while highlighting the importance of yearly prescribed burns which promote native seed germination and keep invasive plants in check across our sensitive ecosystem.
Laura Peitersen of Catonsville engages in the prescribed burn activity during Family Fun Day at the Avalon area of Patapsco Valley State Park

Usually, children line up to await their turn at being firefighter wannabes. But Sunday, April 23rd, at Patapsco Valley State Park's annual "Family Fun Day" in the Avalon area of the park, the very first person in line to tamp down the "fire" was Laura Peitersen of Catonsville, who gleefully aimed her water spray at SDCI's "flame-board" and proceeded to knock down the "fire".  As she and her husband, Matt, walked away from our exhibit, Ms. Peitersen could be heard exclaiming" "I want to do that!"

A Patapsco Valley State Park naturalist shows off a variety of furry pelts
Each year on the third Sunday in April, Patapsco Valley State Park organizes Family Fun Day as a way to introduce the public to the myriad programs and opportunities for communing with nature that the park system offers to the public. The fee to enter the Avalon area of the park was waived to all on this day, and every facet of Maryland's largest state park was represented with a display, a booth or an activity. There were hayrides, Mountain Bike Patrol demonstrations, a Frisbee golf course, wild raptors to observe, horses from the Mounted Patrol, Park Police canine demonstrations, tables full of furry pelts to touch, a park history display, an owl pellet dissecting table, free ice cream and, of course, the prescribed burn activity next to our booth displaying the unique qualities of Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area, which is a part of the Patapsco Valley State Park system.

Seven-year-old Colton Barber, of Baltimore, dissects an owl pellet
Rain had been forecast and, indeed, it rained both the day before and the day after Family Fun Day, but Mother Nature surprised us all and provided lovely, cool, partly sunny conditions throughout the day of the event, which made it very comfortable for those who staffed exhibits all afternoon. Families streamed past the displays, trying their hand at casting for plastic "fish" at the Spanish language table, dissecting dried owl pellets to determine what the bird of prey's regurgitated meal had been -- a mouse? a tiny bird? -- the indigestible remnants of teeth, claws and bones revealed to inquisitive boys and girls what had been on the night hunter's menu.

SDCI vice president Lynell Tobler staffs the SDCI display with Paula Becker during Family Fun Day
When SDCI vice president Lynell Tobler arrived at Avalon to staff the Soldiers Delight exhibit, Maryland Wildlife & Heritage Service biologist Paula Becker was already busy setting up SDCI's display items beneath a large shade structure. As Lynell put out mineral specimens and brochures, Paula went off to gather plants from nearby woods for the invasive species display. No sooner had they erected the "flame board" on the grass for the prescribed burn activity than people gathered to spray water at the "fire" and hear fascinating details about the fragile Soldiers Delight ecosystem.

Diana Heffner, of Mt. Airy, plays a hammered dulcimer with other local musicians who volunteered their talents during Family Fun Day
In the midst of all the exhibits spread across two acres of picnic pavilions at Avalon, a lively ensemble of volunteers gathered in a circle with their instruments: banjos and fiddles, guitars, mandolins, a washtub bass, a concertina and even a hammered dulcimer. The eleven-member group entertained visitors all afternoon with old-timey Americana and folk music. Some of the musicians had never played together before, but that didn't matter to anyone. They came from bands all across Baltimore, Catonsville, Mount Airy and Lake Roland Park; many of them gather monthly at local haunts for improvisational "Fourth Friday" jams". Smaller incarnations play at Patapsco's two campgrounds during summer months. Their upbeat tunes added a festive atmosphere to the day.

From left, a turkey vulture, broad-winged hawk and red-tailed hawk show off their attributes at the Scales & Tales display
Children and adults strained to get closer looks at the broadwinged hawk, turkey vulture and red-tailed hawk perched on a railing at the Scales & Tales exhibit, while a tiny screech owl sat tucked inside a hollowed log nearby, all residents of the aviary at Soldiers Delight. The Friends group for Patapsco Valley State Park handed out free ice cream treats, while members of the Mounted Patrol allowed visitors to pet their gentle steeds.

Members of the mounted patrol allow children to pet their horses
Managed by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Patapsco Valley State Park is not only Maryland's largest park system, encompassing 14,000 acres, but it is also Maryland's very first state park. Lying primarily along 32 miles of the Patapsco River, the park's many distinct areas stretch across four counties. Inviting the public to spend a day learning about all that Patapsco has to offer is a labor of love for the staff and volunteers who make the area so welcoming to visitors throughout the year. Relating the importance of, and our deep affection for, the unique habitat that comprises Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area was a perfect way for Paula and Lynell to spend a pleasant Sunday afternoon.





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