From my earliest childhood memories I can recall, some of my fondest and favorite times were spent in public parks. As a family of four, of which just one parent worked, we were always looking for inexpensive, but fun things to do, and being that my dad was a Boy Scout growing up, he loved (and still does love) the outdoors.
So from a young age, I have been outside, hiking, camping, bicycling, backpacking, playing in water, exploring nature whether on the beach or in the woods or on a mountain.
As I got to thinking about all of the public parks I’ve visited throughout my life, there have been many, but there are still so many I’ve not had a chance to explore, either due to distance or funds, or lack of knowing they exist.
A few years ago, my husband and I spent our anniversary at a first-time park for us both — Merchant Millpond State Park, in the northeastern portion of North Carolina. It was very different than most of the parks I’d been to before.
Growing up, my time in the parks were often camping and hiking at places like Hanging Rock State Park, Pilot Mountain State Park, or the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, or traveling along the Blue Ridge Parkway and visiting its adjacent parks and sites.
Since my dad was a sailor and we had our own boat, a Catalina 22 and then a 25-footer, we would travel to the beach and stay on the boat all week, first anchoring out in the hook right in front of Cape Lookout at the national seashore, and then later going to the waterway along Beaufort. Our trips almost always included visits to Fort Macon State Park as well.
My parents had visited Merchant Millpond alone prior to my trip with my husband, and my dad had suggested we might like it there. It is in Gates County, northeast of Raleigh, east of Interstate 95.
I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect, but then that’s the fun of the adventure of finding a new park to explore and enjoy.
We took our tent, our gear, and a dry-bag so we could keep our stuff dry while we were canoeing. The park does offer canoe-to sites for camping, which are more primitive and have nearby outhouses, but we opted to stay in the campground. We drove to a nearby grocery store once we got there to get fresh items like meat and eggs for cooking, but packed most of our dry goods at home and took it with us.
Each day, we rented a canoe from the state park and headed out on the millpond, paddling among the lily pads to see what we could find — an alligator sun bathed on a rock, where it could be found most every day; an otter playing in the wild, that was first for me who’d only seen them in captivity; a snake, which I could almost swear was a cottonmouth, but didn’t get close enough to find out.
Park rangers told us if we’d come much later in the warm season, we were there at the end of April, the mosquitoes would have been unbearable, and that March and April are their busiest times for visitors.
When I learned this year would be the 100th celebration of both the North Carolina State Park system and the National Park Service, I thought it would be a perfect chance to highlight all of the parks in our region. So I pitched the suggestion and the editorial staffs at the Civitas Media-owned papers in this jumped at the chance to share our hidden treasures with the rest of our readers.
Find Your Park is the theme of the National Park Service celebration, and we thought what a perfect chance to let people in our areas discover their own parks, ones in their backyards, or ones just a short drive away in a nearby county. So we pooled our resources and have created a series of stories on local, state and national parks in our region, from Stokes, Surry, Yadkin, Wilkes, Ashe, Alleghany in North Carolina and Carroll and surrounding areas in Virginia.
I can’t wait to get out to the parks I didn’t know anything about before I started editing the stories our editorial staffs have worked hard on, and back to the parks I might have visited many times, but enjoy revisiting often.
The parks offer lots of free things to do, both recreational and educational, and I hope our readers will take advantage of the parks as a place to play and learn. Don’t take for granted what’s right under your nose, for our ancestors worked hard to keep these preserved for our enjoyment.
I encourage you to get out and Find Your Park, just as I will.
Wendy Byerly Wood is editor of The Tribune and The Yadkin Ripple. She can be reached at [email protected], 336-258-4035 or on Twitter @wendywoodeditor.