- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 26, 2004

The keepers of Rock Creek Park knew the hardwood trees and switchback creeks would certainly bring thousands of visitors yesterday to the park’s 114th birthday party. But they hoped the celebration would also help spread the message that this old park is looking for new visitors, especially those who live nearby.

Much of the effort to reach out to residents in the bordering Northwest neighborhoods of Columbia Heights and Mount Pleasant takes place in the park’s nature center and planetarium, off Military Road.

“One of the things we are really happy to do is show the park as being a vital part of the community,” said Laura Illige, Rock Creek’s chief ranger. “Unlike national parks on the Mall, 96 percent of our visitors are local.”

Inside the nature center’s auditorium is displayed a colorful exhibit of paintings and pastels titled “Reaching Out: Collection of Youth Works.”

Ms. Illige said the project was a joint effort with the nearby Latin American Youth Center and that the young artists were expressing “how they connect” with the park.

Many of the pieces in the exhibit, which also included photographs, showed children in the outdoors. Others were more pastoral, depicting plants and trees.

One artist drew a leaf, and underneath penned his feelings about his environment.

“I choose a leaf because we don’t have a lot of trees in D.C.,” the artist wrote. “I love to touch a leaf because it feels so smooth.”

Ms. Illige said the 1,775-acre park’s numerous picnic groves remain among the most popular attraction for families, but that has not stopped her and others in the National Park Service from trying new ways to expose outsiders to the park’s many wonders, including the planetarium, which is free.

“We’ve tried various ways of connecting with people in these [nearby] communities,” Ms. Illige said.

Still, she acknowledges mixed success.

For example, she said that talks about the park offered in Spanish have been just “partially successful.”

Rangers also have tried a volunteer bike patrol and are especially proud of having the first bilingual exhibit for parks inside the Beltway.

“We are trying a combination of ways to say: ‘We’re here, and it’s free,’” Ms. Illige said. “Sometimes, it’s as simple as handing out fliers about a free event.”

The crowd of about 2,000 yesterday included adults with small children in tow and in strollers. Among the activities were face-painting, arts and crafts, exhibits, lectures and entertainment by Cody & BJ, a popular children’s singing group who let the grown-ups join in the fun with a limbo dance.

Another big attraction was a white timber wolf named Tehkahteh, who allowed himself to be gently stroked by visitors.

“The children love him, and he loves children,” said Dan Winings, a park ranger who owns the animal and who organized much of the birthday celebration. “Tehkahteh’s very popular.”

Inside the nature center, children “oooh”-ed and “ahhh”-ed as they felt a raccoon tail and the pelt of a white-tail deer.

“I liked the furs, and I saw the [type of] bee that stung my brother inside the nature center,” said Sahle Phillpott, 9, a student at Lewisdale Elementary School in Hyattsville. “And I learned that there are no wolves in this area.”

Still, he took the time to have black wolf tracks painted on one arm, compliments of the face-painting table, a popular spot yesterday.

“This has been a great day,” said Kellie Lomax of Lanham. “I brought my daughters, Erica and Nicole, and they’ve had a great time, too.”

Ms. Lomax, a native Washingtonian, said she was fearless as a teenager. She liked snakes and had one in her bedroom until her mother found it. She said so far neither of her daughters, ages 12 and 7, has decided to bring one home. But she wants to expose her children to nature.

“I wanted them to get out and get used to nature and to animals,” she said. “Erica started out a little afraid of the wolf, but then she warmed up quickly.”

Rock Creek is the third-oldest national park in the National Park Service, which was established in 1890.

“It’s fascinating that someone had the foresight to set aside all of this land,” Ms. Illige said. “It’s pretty amazing.”

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