Jill M. Rohrbach
Grab your kids or your grandkids and head to the new Janet Huckabee Arkansas River Valley Nature Center in Fort Smith for an afternoon of family fun. Actually, you don’t have to have kids with you to enjoy it for yourself. But, it is a perfect way to enlighten children about the environment while entertaining them at the same time.
Located in northwest Arkansas, the $5 million facility opened last fall on 170 acres of typical Arkansas River Valley land. It focuses on the flora and fauna of the Arkansas River Valley, as well as the geophysical characteristics of the area. The center not only examines the importance of the Arkansas River on the region, it spotlights the nearby Ouachita and Ozark mountains and how they were formed. One exhibit allows you to crank a lever and move mountains yourself.
Both children and adults will enjoy the 1,700-gallon aquarium with fish native to the Arkansas River. Mounted animals can be found throughout the center, including at a life-sized oak tree exhibit. Here you can push buttons to hear the sounds of animals or move levers to learn about different animals in the oak forest. There’s even a bluebird box that’s big enough for small children to get in.
My 5-year-old’s favorite spot is the fishing area, where kids can catch models of fish with a magnetic lure. You can hold it up to measuring station at a computer kiosk to find out what kind of fish it is, its weight and its length. I had to promise him we’d come back to “fish” some more before we left in order to get him to explore the rest of the center.
Bring a real fishing pole and bait to enjoy Wells Lake, or walk the trails around it to explore various habitats along the shore or in the surrounding forests. The trail around the lake is accessible for people with disabilities. The rear deck of the center overlooks the lake, and is a great place to relax, take in the peaceful surroundings, and listen for songbirds. Or from inside the center, large windows provide a close-up view of native birds and wildlife attracted by an artificial stream and feeders.
On land that was once a part of Fort Chaffee Army base in Fort Smith, the center is located at 8300 Wells Lake Road. It is open 8:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Tuesday–Saturday and 1 p.m.–5 p.m. on Sunday. For more information, call (479) 452-3993, or visit www.rivervalleynaturecenter.com.