David Stoughton, the supervisory park ranger for Southeast Louisiana National Wildlife Refuges, said he was nervous for weeks while helping plan the 17th annual Wild Things Festival.
Even though the weather was perfect at the Bayou Lacombe Centre on the morning of Oct. 18, his stomach was still churning in anticipation of the day’s events.
He finally started to relax when he saw a long line of cars entering the festival grounds at Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge that morning.
“I stay nervous about these things,” he said. “My biggest fear is that no one is going to show up; that people will forget about you.”
That didn’t happen at this year’s Wild Things — not by a long shot. In fact, an estimated 5,500 people attended the free festival that day, which Stoughton said was the most in the event’s history. It was a welcome revelation to Stoughton and his fellow employees at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Last year’s Wild Things was canceled due to a government shutdown, which briefly interrupted a string of continued growth at the wildly popular outdoors-related gathering.
But things were back in full force at Wild Things in 2014.
This year’s offerings included several dozen hands-on instructional booths that allowed visitors, mostly children, to see local animals in their native habitats. The offerings gave them all a look at alligators, mosquitoes, owls and wildcats, among others.
The crowd had the chance to learn about important local ecological efforts, such as the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation’s “Save Our Lake, Save Our Coast” campaign; and the Northlake Nature Center’s dedication to maintenance of local habitat for flora and fauna.
In addition, there were stations set up where children practiced archery skills and shooting skills with a pellet gun. There were pontoon boat tours of scenic Bayou Lacombe, van tours of remote spots at Big Branch Marsh, a hayride shuttle, a casting pond and more to keep visitors of all ages enthralled.
Food and cold drinks were sold by the Friends of Louisiana Wildlife Refuges group, which helps USFWS staff in myriad ways. Live music brought the event a festival-like flair.
“It was the most successful program to date,” Stoughton said. “By all accounts, everyone said this was the most busy we’ve ever been. We pretty much had reached maximum capacity with parking.”
What he said makes the difference: “The volunteer support is the standout in all of this.”
That was noticed right away by Slidell’s Kelly Walgamotte, who attended Wild Things for the first time. The first stop for his family was a volunteer booth set up by employees of Home Depot, at which children could transform small pieces of wood into model airplanes, boats, tool boxes and more.
Walgamotte’s sons — Hank, 5, and Wyatt, 3 — jumped right into the action, grabbing hammers and pounding away under the helpful eye of volunteers, as well as parents Kelly and Lana.
“Honestly, I’d never even heard of this festival,” Kelly Walgamotte said. “There were so many other festivals going on today, we weren’t sure which one to pick. I’m glad we picked this one. It’s all hands-on, and the animals are a big plus for the boys.”
Jeanne Denson, a 14-year employee of Home Depot, said it was her third year volunteering at Wild Things. She enjoys the whole affair, but said it’s the kids who bring her back.
“I love kids, and watching them work on these tool boxes and toys is so much fun,” Denson said.
The idea of Wild Things is simple: It’s an opportunity for the USFWS to reach out to local communities and show them the shared stewardship it takes to run public lands. To that end, record crowds at Wild Things mean the mission was met.
“I like to bill this as the largest free outdoor festival for kids in the state,” Stoughton said. “We have 17 people on staff, and we’re all here today. We have recruitments from outside groups and we have hundreds of volunteers from local schools, and mainly our Friends group. Those folks are the true energy force behind this. Without them, none of this happens.”
For information on Southeast Louisiana National Wildlife Refuges or on the Friends of Louisiana Wildlife Refuges group, visit www.fws.gov/ southeastlouisiana or call (985) 882-2000.