CONWAY, Ark. (February 4, 2013) - Naturalists and outdoor enthusiasts can now make their way through one of the best birding sites on the Mississippi River flyway, thanks to a collaborative project between Hendrix biology professor Dr. Matt Moran, his students, and the White River National Wildlife Refuge.
Moran and his students recently completed a brochure for the three-mile H Lake Canoe trail. The trail winds through the old river channels and oxbow lakes in the Big Woods area near St. Charles off of Route 1 in southeast Arkansas.
Narrow, swampy, and full of wildlife wonders including ancient cypress, the trail showcases one of the last forested areas left in the Delta. The canoe trail brochure is now available in the White River National Wildlife Refuge's Visitors Center. Moran hopes the trail will draw attention to the Big Woods as an outdoor recreation destination and awareness of the area's conservation needs.
"We hope people will start doing it this year," says Moran, adding that April is an awesome month to go based on weather. "The Big Woods, in general, is poorly known, but there's no better place for wintertime birding in the mid-South … The Big Woods is very important for wildlife."
The H Lake Canoe Trail is a part of two-year project Moran undertook after he received a Hendrix Odyssey Professorship. Odyssey Professorships offer support for Hendrix faculty members who design projects that increase hands-on learning opportunities for students.
The final product of Moran's work as the Judy and Randy Wilbourn Odyssey Professor will be a nature field guide to the Big Woods area.
Moran and three Arkansas students - Emily Deitchler '13 of Eureka Springs, Heather McPherson '12 of Little Rock, and Dillon Blankenship '12 of Pea Ridge -completed the field work for the project in fall 2011, while another Arkansas student - Katie Kilpatrick '13 of Fort Smith - handled the mapmaking for the book.
About 30 different locations over a 200-mile stretch are described in the book. About two-thirds are water trails and a third of are hiking trails. The guidebook and canoe and hiking trails are designed to teach visitors about the area's wildlife as they explore, Moran says.
The first draft of the book will be complete this spring, Moran says.
When he approached the White River National Wildlife Refuge about the guide book project, the federal agency was very excited, says Moran, who has also worked in state wildlife areas including the Black Swamp, Dagmar, Wattensaw, and Trusten-Holder areas, as well as properties owned by the Nature Conservancy, which is "very active in the Big Woods."
Sharing the Wilbourn Odyssey Professorship with Moran is Hendrix art professor Maxine Payne. Along with Moran's guide book, Payne and her students are developing an exhibit of documentary-style photography about the region's people.
Their professorship is officially funded through the end of the spring 2013 semester but Moran sees much more potential for work in the Big Woods area.
"There are an endless number of places to explore," says Moran, who will continue to stay involved in conservation and education efforts in the Big Woods. A future project may include scouting trails for visitors to view some of the state champion trees found in the Refuge, he adds.
Most importantly, Moran says, the project has given students a chance to connect their environmental interests with a tangible need in Arkansas.
"This has broad and immediate value to the public, and it's given students a chance to have their work read and accessed by a large audience beyond just the science research community," Moran says. "And they get experience doing something that benefits conservation and environmental issues."
Founded in 1876, Hendrix College is a national leader in engaged liberal arts and sciences education. For the fifth consecutive year, Hendrix was named one of the country's "Up and Coming" liberal arts colleges by U.S. News and World Report. Hendrix is featured in the 2012 edition of the Princeton Review as one of the country's best 377 colleges, the latest edition of Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think about Colleges, Forbes magazine's annual list of America's Top 650 Colleges, and the 2013 edition of the Fiske Guide to Colleges. Hendrix has been affiliated with the United Methodist Church since 1884. For more information, visit www.hendrix.edu.