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Bays Mountain Park: An outdoor haven in a pandemic world

Matthew Lane • Apr 12, 2020 at 9:15 AM

KINGSPORT — Visitors to Bays Mountain Park want the city of Kingsport to do one thing: Please keep the park open.

That’s the message from a number of folks who were at the park last week, including a man going for a jog, a mother and her son enjoying a picnic lunch and a family of three hiking up to the fire tower.

“Yes, let’s keep the park open,” said Earl Edens, as he finished up a 47-minute run around the lake. Edens said he routinely comes up to the park to run and hike and believes the city should do anything it can to keep it open for the public.

Danielle Roberson brought her 18-month-old son, Landon, to Bays Mountain to enjoy a takeout lunch from Fazoli's. She’s an instructional assistant at Lincoln Elementary School — now working from home — and said she enjoys coming to park.

In the wake of Tennessee’s decision to close every state park to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, keeping Bays Mountain Park open is more important than ever for families like the Hornes. Josh and Desirae brought their 7-year-old son, Elijah, and 3-month-old Labradoodle, Roxie, to Bays Mountain for fitness and education.

“We’re trying to get some exercise and we’re also doing some science, teaching Elijah how to read a compass, and we’re going to hike up to the fire tower,” said Desirae. “We’re learning about nature, the trees and plants and encompassing it into our homeschooling.”

The Hornes are like many families in the Tri-Cities, trying to navigate this global pandemic, surviving layoffs and home-bound work, while educating stay-at-home kids. The couple live near Warriors Path State Park and would often visit for a walk. However, that’s no longer an option.

“We all need a place to go to enjoy outdoor activities, the beautiful outside, and it’s a way to learn and grow together and stay healthy,” Desirae said.

Bays Mountain Park — like many other departments within the city — stopped hosting programs, events and activities more than two weeks ago to help keep people safe and slow the spread of the virus. The nature center, herpetarium and dam were closed, while planetarium shows and barge rides were halted.

But the park itself is still open, all 3,600 acres and 40 miles of trails, and no employees have been furloughed. City officials said last week as long as visitors follow social distancing recommendations, there are no plans to close Bays Mountain.

“Everybody is really conscious and aware of the need to keep their distance, and we’re seeing cooperation on the trails,” said Rob Cole, the park’s director. “It’s the thing that’s keeping us open right now. Seeing people taking real precautions to avoid clustering ... that’s a good thing to see in this climate.”

Weekend attendance at Bays Mountain Park is on par with a typical weekend, Cole said, but the weekday numbers are definitely down. At this time of year, the park routinely hosts school groups. With every school in our region shut down, that traffic simply doesn’t exist. Despite the lack of attendance during the week and programs not being held within the park, staff members still have plenty to do.

Cole said they are performing building and park maintenance, updating nature programs, working on exhibits, uploading videos to the park’s website, collecting deadfall around the habitats and, of course, taking care of all of the animals. Some programs are being modified and updated and staff are taking this time to educate themselves on topics to use in future programs.

“We want to be sure we’re taking care of things in short order and not letting them linger. Very little has changed in the way we conduct ourselves behind the scenes,” Cole said. “This is the new normal for now, but we’ll still be here when this is all over.”

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