Staying Active with Family Activities in the Ouachita Cold

by Josh Williams and Marisa Rodgers

The Ouachita region is expected to receive three to four inches above normal snowfall this winter. And the average mean temperature for the region is supposed to be down a degree or two.  That’s cold.  Although it was a slow start to winter this year,  that’s enough to make the difference between a normal, fairly uneventful winter and an exciting one. There are many places in Western Arkansas that take on a whole different look with a bunch of the frozen stuff resting on their top layer.  We’ll show you some ways to keep moving while the things around you stop and guarantee you make the most of the wintery bliss.  Just remember to stay safe, bundle up appropriately and use common sense while Old Man Winter delivers his wrath upon us.

Hiking the Ouachita National Forest

This patch of 1.8 million acres of natural beauty is filled with breathtaking foliage, intricate trails and an array of wildlife that you won’t see anywhere else.  Whether you want to hike, hunt,  fish, camp or just drive through the mountains, these vistas are unequaled.  If you do get out in the forest this winter, remember to use your common sense:  Take plenty of clothes and don’t go alone.  It would probably be a good idea to make sure your supply of gloves and beanies are up to par too.  It might be a little tough to negotiate the Ouachita National Forest in an extra-cold winter, but if you do get out there,  hiking, biking, fishing or hunting the snow-capped mountains will be one of the most beautiful and exhilarating experiences of your life. Visit www.fs.usda.gov/ouachitanationalforest or call (501) 321-5202 for tips before making the trek.

Lake Ouachita 3-Day Bicycle Tour

This self-supported ride leaves from Hot Springs, goes to Irons Fork primitive camp on the lake on the first night, Crystal Springs camp the second night then returns to Hot Springs.  People are encouraged to bring a few groceries, as dinner will be cooked at the various campsites. The event takes place from Saturday, February 13 through Monday, February 15.  The ride will begin at the Hot Springs Convention Center located at 134 Convention Blvd, Hot Springs, Arkansas 71902. Admission is free. Visit www.arkansasbicycleclub.org for more information, or call Jim Britt at (501) 912-1449.

Dig for Diamonds

The Crater of Diamonds State Park is open daily throughout the year and offers park visitors a one-of-a-kind experience—the adventure of hunting for real diamonds. You’ll search over a 37 ½-acre plowed field that is the eroded surface of the world’s eighth largest diamond-bearing volcanic crater. Stop by the Diamond Discovery Center on your way to prospect in the diamond search area. Here, exhibits, interpretive programs, and a video show you the various ways to search for diamonds and identify rough diamonds as you prospect. Mining tools are available to rent.  If you find a diamond, it is yours to keep.  The park also includes 47 Class AAA campsites and five walk-in tent sites with free Wi-Fi, an enclosed pavilion with heating, picnic sites, restaurant, gift shop, trails, and laundry.  The park is located at 209 State Park Road in Murfreesboro, Arkansas 71958. Visit www.craterofdiamondsstatepark.com or call (870) 285-3113.

Go Winter Camping

For some, winter camping means renting a cabin heated by a wooden stove, but for the more adventurous it means making a pack and hauling out to your favorite location where you will test your endurance in the colder temperatures and hone your skills as a camping elite.  Build a campfire, whether for cooking or warmth.  But for the sake of safety, make sure that your outer layer of clothing is right for cuddling close to those dancing embers.  Wool is one of the best, most fire-resistant natural materials and is perfect for this.  Down jackets are the complete opposite, so steer clear when next to the flames. Pack a lot of extra layers, especially heavy on the socks, hats and gloves. Sleep with your boots. If you have standard single layer boots, store them in a plastic or waterproof bag and stick them in the bottom of your sleeping bag.  There is nothing worse than damp boots freezing overnight for you to enjoy the next morning. Coat exposed skin in vaseline or animal fat to protect it against the falling temperatures. Bottom line, if you are properly prepared, winter camping can be an exciting adventure.  The colder the forecast, the more research you might want to do before embarking, but do it.  You’ll be glad you challenged yourself!

Take a Photo Expedition

Use the freshly changed landscape to your advantage and capture some timeless photographs.  Nothing is more serene to look at than a fresh layer of white powder on the rooftops of the environment around you.  You will barely remember the cold you endured to get that shot once the feeling reaches your fingertips again and you have that memory captured forever.  Choose high vantage points, like West Mountain in Hot Springs, the Lake Lago Lookout Point in Hot Springs Village, or if driving is still safe to navigate, even a day drive to Mount Magazine or Petit Jean State Parks.

Feed the Birds or Go Birdwatching

A perfect family activity for many ages is to make your own birdfeeders out of pine cones, peanut butter and birdseed – a timeless classic. Some other ideas include stringing cranberries, popcorn and cereal onto fishing lines for garland to attract and nourish your feathered friends.  Then break out the binoculars and bird watch. Hopefully your delicious creations will attract a variety of birds that nature has told to stay put in our area for the duration of winter.

Get Artsy

Take advantage of the snowfall for more than just a snowman, although we don’t recommend skipping the creation of your very own Frosty.  Play Pin-the-Face on the Snowman. Just like Pin-the-Tail, the blindfolded challenger, armed with Oreo cookies, tries to make the face of a snowman in this silly, delightful manner.  Make snow graffiti. Simply add food coloring to water and put in a spray bottle, then go out and paint the white canvas that is your backyard.  Want a few laughs and a learning experience for kids as well?  When the temperature drops below 32 degrees, go outside and blow bubbles.  It’s not just summer fun anymore!  Watch the bubbles freeze on the wand and create a beautiful example of how the cold impacts water so quickly.

Want to stay indoors instead and just watch the snow fall?  That’s okay too.  Use this time to commemorate your day.

With strong glue, attach plastic toy or toys to the inside of a jar lid. Then add baby oil and glitter. You have then created a homemade snow globe as a fun souvenir of a great day.

Take Snow Play up a Notch

Start a game of Tic-Tac-Snow with two players.  Use crisscrossed sticks and pinecones as game pieces.  Or, paint a bull’s-eye target on a piece of cardboard, giving each colored ring a point value. Attach it to a tree and keep score as the kids, and kids at heart, try to hit the target with snowballs.

Try Tracking 

We recommend exploring the untrampled edges of local parks after a snowfall to look for animal tracks. The short periods of snow tell the most stories about animal lives than other times of the year and gets children really excited to explore and learn more.  How many toes does the animal have? Deer have two where dogs and cats have four.  A chipmunk and an armadillo have four on the front paws and five on the hind legs.  Does the track show claw marks? Squirrel and fox tracks show claws. Dog tracks do too.  Is there a line in the snow? Mice sometimes leave the imprint of a tail in the snow, porcupine tails leave troughs.  Are the tracks spread far apart or are they close together? Answering this question tells children whether the animal is big or small and whether it was traveling quickly or slowly.  Do tracks go over or under downed trees? A bigger animal will go over a downed tree, while a smaller animal may choose to go under it.  Do tracks stop at a tree? A squirrel can climb a tree, but a rabbit can’t.  Download an animal track identification guide before you go, like the helpful one at http://www.oyccweb.com/uploads/2/6/4/4/26442920/animal_track_id_guide.pdf. Have your child tell you where they think the critters are going and what they are up to and record these adorable conversations to have for many years to come.