Amazin’ Raisin’s Director of Amazin’, Victoria, recently sat down with Niki Wayner, Assistant Director of the Jacksonville State University (JSU) Field Schools to discuss how you can #BeYourAmazin by protecting and appreciating the natural beauty of the world around you. Niki is stationed at the Little River Canyon Center, just next to the Little River Canyon National Preserve in scenic Fort Payne, Alabama.
Victoria: Let’s start with the basics. What are the JSU Field Schools, and why are you stationed here at Little River Canyon Niki: My section, the JSU Field Schools, has three different locations: Little River Canyon Center in Fort Payne, The Mountain Center in Heflin, and our main office in Anniston at Fort McClellan. We cover the entire area between The Canyon Center and The Mountain Center, so we say, “from the deepest canyon to the tallest mountain,” we cover it all. The whole mission is to encourage environmental and cultural awareness, and to get people outside! With the Field Schools, we do field trips, programs and activities. We are trying to bring awareness to nature, and how beautiful this part of Alabama really is.
Victoria: What’s a typical day like at the Canyon Center? Niki: We do a little bit of everything! It depends on what’s going on at the canyon that day. If it is a Field Trip Day, we’ll have classes in everything from Herpetology (we have a snake program), to Water Quality, to… a hike going out back. Then there are other days where we have events- we’re getting ready for a concert. Labor Day Weekend we are having a free concert, a fundraiser to benefit first responders. My primary focus, I’m the education person, so I lead hikes and take kids on field trips. We also have teacher workshops.
Victoria: Okay, a little bit more about the canyon. I know I have seen on the posters that there are several plants and animals that are only found here, in Little River Canyon… Niki: Yes. So, the one we are mostly known for is the Green Pitcher Plant. It’s carnivorous, which is why everyone knows it- it’s one of those where the insect falls in and the plant eats the insect, so to speak. We also have certain species of fish that are only found here. Also, we do have black bears, which is neat. Most people don’t realize they are here, but we have 20 to 30 at last estimate. I’ve never run into one, but I have seen tracks, and some people have caught them on their game cameras. But there is a whole list of endangered and threatened animals and plants that are found here. It’s neat to relay that to kids. Some people, even locals, don’t realize that this is right here in their backyard.
Victoria: You were the ones looking for the Spotted Skunk, right? Niki: The Spotted Skunk vs. the Striped Skunk? Yes, they are still doing research on it. You have the striped skunk that everyone knows and has seen, then you have the spotted skunk, which isn’t all that common. We haven’t gotten any solid proof yet, but we’ve heard rumors that they are around here. One of our staffers is a photographer- he saw a striped skunk out here one morning and decided to get close to take a picture. He was sneaking up on it and the skunk was just ignoring him, then all the sudden it saw him and started charging toward him! He snapped a great picture, of the skunk with its tail up, as he was beelining for the door. I told him, if you’d gotten sprayed, you would not have been allowed back in the building! We have one that comes by here regularly in the early mornings, and we have the armadillos, too.
Victoria: What’s your favorite thing about your job? Niki: I absolutely adore getting to see the look on kids’ faces when they see things for the first time. Or when they finally, that science point that they kind of understand but don’t really, when you put them in the real situation and they’re suddenly like, “Oh! That’s what you were talking about!” I also do a lot of animal programs, so getting to show kids a live snake or a great horned owl, the look on their faces is priceless! I had a child come to me who thought owls were make believe. She didn’t know they were real, and the moment she saw a real, live owl and realized, oh my gosh this exists! That’s priceless. That’s just one of those moments.
Victoria: Now, you’ve already told me the skunk story, but are there any other funny stories you can think of? Niki: Oh, this is terrible but… we have the Path to Learning out back, it’s a ¾ mile trail that has education stations on it, and we were getting ready to go out on the trail and do some activities. I told this group, we have a very large rat snake that lives on the path. He’s about 6 feet long, huge! He’s always out there, and if he gets threatened or surprised, he puffs his cheeks out, flattens his head, and rattles his tail in the woods- he looks and sounds like a rattlesnake! So, we were talking about this particular snake, and I was like, if you see a snake, just leave it alone and you’ll be fine. They asked me, have you ever seen a rattlesnake here? I said, they’re there. I know they are there, but in a year and a half, I’ve never seen one. Well, about ten minutes later they come running in, hysterical. They’re screaming, “it’s a rattlesnake!” I’m like, “it’s not a rattlesnake. It’s the grey rat snake.” She said, “no, I have a picture!” Sure enough, it was a giant timber rattlesnake, right in the middle of our trail. So, we just left him alone and he slithered off into the woods, and life was good. He didn’t care about us, he was just like, “ya’ll just leave me alone.” That’s your best bet with snakes, if you see one, just leave it alone.
Victoria: Tell me about Little River Canyon’s involvement in the Google Earth Cultural Institute. Niki: Google has this platform, Google Earth, and The Plants of Little River Canyon is part of it. They have a lot of really cool, different things from all around the world- it’s this giant, interactive educational program that kids can go online and explore. In the case of Little River Canyon, we have all these pictures taken by Bill Garland, one of our local wildlife experts. We have a Kiosk in the lobby of the Canyon Center where you can search through all these amazing pictures- you can search by color, type, etc.
Victoria: Oh, and before I let you go, what’s your favorite flavor of Amazin’ Raisin? Niki: Strawberry! I’m an Amazin’ Raisin addict. It’s ridiculous how excited I am about trying the new flavors. I’ll have to hide them from my co-workers (Freddy loves the Sour Lemon ones), my children, pretty much everyone.