University City

Kids test skills at bark-boat building

Children choose their supplies for a bark boat building activity at Reedy Creek Nature Center.
Children choose their supplies for a bark boat building activity at Reedy Creek Nature Center. JOE HABINA

When you enter Reedy Creek Park from Rocky River Road, the first thing you see is its popular, fenced-in dog park on the right.

But on a recent Saturday afternoon, the bark that drew the most excitement from a collection of grade-schoolers and their parents came from the Nature Preserve section of the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation property.

Led by environmental educator Kat Sweaney, the Reedy Creek Nature Center hosted a Bark Boat program in which children were invited to build vessels out of some of nature’s construction materials and test their buoyancy on one of the Nature Preserve’s bodies of water.

Eighteen children, ranging in age from about 5 to 12, participated. Registration was requested, but walk-ins also were welcome, leading to a few more participants than Sweaney expected.

“Building appreciation for nature is an overarching theme (of the Nature Center),” said Sweaney. “Each time it’s a little different. Bark-boat building is about getting outside and talking about streams. It’s about discovering nature.”

Bark-boat building involved selecting a collection of bark, small sticks, clay and leaves that Sweaney had gathered and made available early in the morning.

Children were challenged to find a piece of buoyant bark and perhaps erect a stick and attach a leaf with some clay to replicate a sail.

Some of the early-arriving children, including the Klezath children – 9-year-old Annika, 7-year-old Julian and 5-year-old Tobias – helped Sweaney collect extra supplies.

“Get anything that will float,” she said. “But you don’t want to get anything that’s still growing.”

Nature Center staff provide numerous educational programs, including single-day classes such as bark-boat building. The upcoming schedule includes Nature Game Night on Sept. 11 and National Grandparents Day Frame, in which children will design a natural picture frame for their elders, on Sept. 12.

Reedy Creek staff host school field trips in which students take nature hikes and examine ecosystems.

They also visit schools to present programs. The Nature Center recently concluded its summer camp program, which included weeks designated for nature art, water wonders and biodiversity. The daylong sessions are available for children 4-12 years old.

Mirko Klezath and his children have regularly attended Reedy Creek’s programs, including bird-watching, insect-collecting and geocaching. The Matthews residents also visit some of Mecklenburg County’s other nature preserves, including McDowell and Latta.

“We really like what they do,” said Mirko Klezath. “It’s fun for the kids.”

Last month, Mint Hill 7-year-old Cayden Rybicki had his birthday party at Reedy Creek. It helped remind his parents, Chris and Debbie Rybicki, how fond they once were of the park.

They all returned to Reedy Creek for bark-boat building in part because Chris had once built bark boats as a child growing up in Buffalo, N.Y. He offered advice to Cayden during the testing phase of construction as the children were encouraged to try their boats in a kiddie pool before christening it in a Reedy Creek pond.

Six-year old Evan Robinson tried one design but was discouraged when it leaned too much to one side in the water. His mother, Melisha Grogan, and Sweaney helped him build a new prototype that Evan placed in the clay-colored water.

“It works,” he shouted. “It floats this time.”

Participants hiked 10 minutes on the Dragon Fly Pond trail, discovering butterflies, dragonflies and strange-looking mushrooms along the way.

As their boats slowly drifted off, Sweaney explained the importance of building their boats out organic material because they were likely to eventually sink and end up in the bottom of the pond. Annika Klezath was still appreciative of hers and the other kids’ accomplishments.

“I liked that everyone got to build a boat,” she said. “Most of them didn’t sink.”

Joe Habina is a freelance writer:

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For details on Mecklenburg County Parks and Recreation nature programs, go to