Rue McNeil leans on a bridge railing, looking across the Northlake Nature Center beaver pond. Amid a symphony of bullfrogs, one in particular seems very close, croaking loudly.

“Alligators can make similar calls,” she said, peering into the coffee-colored water, watching a cluster of turtles swim. “The turtles are so trained they swim right up to the bridge when people stop.”

McNeil continues along the trail, pointing to a giant cypress.

“One evening I was walking here and the tree was full of ibis,” she said smiling. “It looked like they were coming to roost.”

McNeil is the executive director of the Northlake Nature Center. She began volunteering in the early ’90s when her children were young Scouts.

In the summer of 2005, she began working part time for the Nature Center writing grants and developing programs. It soon became a full-time job, adding volunteer coordination, general office administration and the annual Great Louisiana BirdFest, which highlights the best birding locations in St. Tammany Parish.

McNeil brings multiple accomplishments to the task of building the center’s trails and programs. She has an MBA from University of New Orleans in international studies, experience as a certified Louisiana Master Naturalist, and did volunteer work in St. Tammany Public Schools.

Located on U.S. 190, not far from Pelican Park and Fontainebleau State Park, the Nature Center holds 400 acres with trails across four ecosystems including ancient pines, hardwood forests and ponds/swamps. It’s a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation offering visitors both self and guided tours.

In addition to early evening nature and bicycle hikes, the center hosts a moonlight hike and children’s summer programs. Education is key along the trails, with interpretive signs labeling plant species.

McNeil has fond memories of watching the center grow, such as Girl Scout troops planting wildflower seeds, just as she and her daughter did years ago. Then there was the first moonlight hike and marshmallow melt.

“It was an awesome sight watching the flashlights glowing in the dark in a trail of hikers,” McNeil said, adding that Boy Scouts helped build the bridges. “Two Boy Scouts earned their Eagle rank with the canoe launch project, and we just began another bridge project to connect the canoe trail to the south loop trail.”

The family moved to St. Tammany Parish in 1988.

“I loved the neighborhoods and the plentiful green space,” McNeil explained. “We bought a lot near the Northlake Nature Center and built our dream home in 2001, which has a backyard that looks like the Center.”

She grew up in New Orleans, but spent her first nine years in Michigan.

“I can remember enjoying ice skating down the sidewalks,” she said. “We also built igloos in the snow and Christmas tree forts with recycled trees.”

Climbing trees was a passion of hers while living in New Orleans, and when she got older, she restored a 52-foot yacht.

“I found myself taking classes in swimming, scuba diving, wind surfing, and entering every running event possible that led to triathlons,” McNeil said, adding she also did lifeguard training. “I continue to take classes, preferably in the outdoors. Kundalini (yoga) is one, which is offered at the Northlake Nature Center.”

She loves sharing her enthusiasm for the outdoors with others and seeing the joy that it brings.

“I love the Tammany Trace, you might see me on it running, in-line skating or biking,” McNeil said, “But the Northlake Nature Center is my passion. Hiking through the tree-canopy-lined trails is truly a beautiful experience.”

Deborah Burst writes about people behind-the-scenes of organizations and events in St. Tammany Parish. To reach her, email deborahburst@gmail.com.