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Go Ask Mom

Go Ask Mom

Adventure waiting: Durant Nature Preserve offers 'natural oasis' that's perfect for families

Posted July 25, 2021 8:55 p.m. EDT

Courtesy: Amy Eckberg

— Back when my girls were tiny, Durant Nature Preserve was a favorite spot. We'd look for turtles on the pond, spy deer as we played on the playground and hiked the short trails. But I'm always surprised to learn about people who haven't made it there yet.

So I checked in with Amy Eckberg, who has been working at the park for nearly 20 years—first as an environmental educator and volunteer and now as full-time park manager. Eckberg has two daughters in their 20s who grew up playing at Durant.

"It's where we would take our dog for long walks, where my girls caught their first fish and where we spent hours playing at the creek," Eckberg tells me. "I have so many great memories and pictures of my kids exploring the preserve. It was, and still is, our go-to place when we need a dose of nature and fun!"

I checked in with Eckberg to learn more about what makes Durant, at 8305 Camp Durant Rd., so special, her favorite spots and how to keep kids and teens engaged on outdoor adventures. Here's a Q&A.

Amy Eckberg (right) at Durant Nature Preserve

Go Ask Mom: Durant gets lots of visitors but for some is still a hidden gem. What makes it special?

Amy Eckberg: Durant is a 237-acre natural oasis tucked in between busy Falls of Neuse on the west and Capital Boulevard on the east. Those that find the preserve, either by word of mouth or the big brown signs on Capital Boulevard, quickly fall in love and become regular visitors; it’s easy to see why.  With two lakes, a meandering creek, multiple gardens, play areas for the kids, and miles of wooded trails, the preserve offers a variety of natural habitats perfect for nature exploration and fun family activities.   Whether you’re looking for a quiet, peaceful walk to connect with nature, or want to participate in one of our many hands-on nature programs, Durant is sure to offer a memorable outdoor experience on any level.

Durant’s former life as a Boy Scout camp provides unique charm like the cabin and outdoor fire pit located alongside the lower lake trail built back in the 1950s by the Scouts as their dedicated space for nature study. Now, the cabin is used as home base for Durant’s popular family campout programs where participants come together to fuel up on a shared meal cooked over a campfire before heading out on a firefly lit trail to listen for owls hooting and frogs calling. A night camping under the stars is followed up with a morning canoe on the lake plus fishing for bass and sunfish on the docks where many have caught their very first fish!

The colorful, hand-painted wildlife murals found scattered about the park are another unique feature that make Durant special. They provide an example of our talented staff’s handiwork, combined with their passion for interpreting the rich diversity of plants and wildlife that are unique to Durant which visitors can also learn about through our interactive nature programs led by enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff.

GAM: Tell us about the programs you offer for families at the park.

AE: One of my favorite programs is the Campfire Story and Marshmallow Roast program. Who doesn’t love a good campfire story followed by a s’more? Here, families come together to enjoy good company, a traditional campfire snack, and a seasonal story which could take the form of a skit, song or special “animal guest." These are always lively, entertaining programs that are fun for all ages.  Take a Child Outside Week (TACO) is an annual traditional every September aimed at getting families outside to enjoy all our parks have to offer.  During this week-long event, Durant will offer an outdoor cooking and night hike program, and fishing and monarch butterfly programs – all of which take advantage of Durant’s unique habitats and resources.

Another one of my all-time favorite family friendly programs is Enchanted Forest coming up this fall on Oct. 23. This is a magical evening where woodland animals come alive along luminary lit trails to talk about what their life is like in the woods and for some, the water.  At the end of the trail awaits a campfire and a marshmallow to roast;  it’s a program you won’t soon forget and its one my kids' favorite memories!

Durant Nature Preserve

GAM: What are some of your favorite trails and spaces at Durant?

AE: One of my favorite activities I used to do with my daughters out in the preserve was to visit the fishing dock. We’d count all the turtles, fish, and dragonflies we saw and look for our animal friends like the kingfisher performing their daily patrols of the lake. We loved taking our dog on long walks around the lower lake side trail stopping to have a break at the old cabin site.  We also enjoyed coming to the park an hour or so before closing time in the summer to catch fireflies, listen for owls, and look for white-tailed deer munching on persimmons.  The secret creek was our go-to trail and it’s where we would play on the big rocks and take our homemade “boats” made of sticks, bark and leaves to set sail along the creek.

While a large storm took out hundreds of trees and the old park office in early 2020, the preserve is starting to heal and come back stronger as evident by the new features found in our sensory garden. The newly carved chainsaw art log is a result of a huge oak that fell during the storm, but now provides a fun focal feature depicting some of the wildlife found at Durant. It also reminds me a little bit of the totem poles that once graced the dirt and gravel entrance drive leading into the park that were installed by the Scouts decades ago.

GAM: A lot of parents have big visions of weekend family hikes, but they often devolve into temper tantrums or disgruntled teens. What are your tips for a happy family hike?

AE: Hiking with my own family and leading hikes for others has taught me a thing or two about what it takes to have a great time outdoors and the secret all boils down to a bit of preparation. Making sure everyone’s basic needs are met before hitting the trail is key, along with anticipating what needs may pop up while you’re out. Kids of all ages need water and snacks so be sure to bring these essentials along. Timing and trail selection is important too.  Soaring summer temperatures can make any well-intentioned hike become unbearable so try to time being outdoors for earlier in the morning or later in the day. I always like to find the shadiest trails possible and, fortunately, Durant has many to choose from.  I especially like the secret creek trail which is shaded with lots of mature trees and runs parallel to a picturesque creek.  It’s the perfect place to look for animal tracks – especially deer, raccoon and opossum.  The loop around the lower lake is also my favorite - both trails provide great opportunities to see turtles, fish, and even our resident great blue herons who regularly hunt for meals along the water.

Being out in nature is inherently soothing and at Durant there is always something new and amazing to see, making it easy to ward off potential temper tantrums or even the most disgruntled teens through the art of distraction. Each season provides something new to wonder at. In this season of summer, my personal favorites are the butterflies, baby turtles and acrobatic dragonflies.

Durant Nature Preserve

GAM: I used to take my girls when they were much younger to Durant and we would look for turtles or count the squirrels that ran across our path. What is your advice for keeping toddlers and preschoolers engaged at Durant?

AE: I always like to bring a little something unexpected to pull out of my bag near the end of a walk with preschoolers as energy levels start to dip. A small bottle of bubbles were my go-to trick for getting tired kiddos to the finish line or that last hundred feet up the hill. My daughter’s favorite Buzz Lightyear toy was a regular companion on our walks because if Buzz could do it so could she! Other hiking essentials that are easy to carry included a small, clear magnifying box to pull out for when we found insects, rocks, seeds or anything else we fancied looking at upon closer inspection.  Little ones get so excited finding things to put in the box and then seeing how big they get!

There are so many fun gardens to explore with preschoolers at Durant. The trails are short and easily navigable. The sensory garden by the park entrance is a fun, whimsical garden full of plants, a sandbox, play teepee, turtle climbing hill and a beautifully painted play shed where kids imaginations can run wild.  The butterfly garden in summer is always my favorite place to look for caterpillars, colorful flowers and butterflies flitting about.  The bird garden, located right next door provides a great space for watching birds at the feeders.  Hop on the short paved trail that leads from these gardens down to the lake to look for trees chewed on by beavers and turtles sunning themselves - sometimes 50 to a log! 

The park offers themed discovery backpacks that anyone can check out for free at the park office. These backpacks contain fun activities that help families take a deeper dive into nature. Search for life in the lake by checking out the pond backpack where you can use a dipnet to look for tadpoles and dragonfly nymphs, or check out the insect backpack to use an insect net, guide books, and magnifying box to help you identify the amazing variety of insects found in the preserve.

Go Ask Mom features local moms every Monday.