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'The King (snake)' greets Lake Catherine visitors

By Jack Schnedler

This article was published July 17, 2014 at 1:57 a.m.

At Lake Catherine State Park, park interpreter Steve Donahou shows speckled king snake Elvis to a visitor just in from swimming and wrapped in a towel.

LAKE CATHERINE STATE PARK -- If you've never held a snake, a good place to start is by handling Elvis at Lake Catherine State Park.

He's a speckled king snake, maybe a yard long if you stretched him out. Thoroughly docile and cool to the touch, he's not at all slimy -- or aggressive. He's happy to be held by visitors to the scenic park's Nature Cabin, where park interpreter Steve Donahou is introducing him to a half-dozen visitors on a July afternoon.

There's a bulge about halfway down Elvis' speckled length, where he's digesting a small white mouse swallowed live an hour ago. Most snakes ingest their food that way, needing to eat only every other week or so. Visitors inclined to feel sorry for the mouse should recall Alfred, Lord Tennyson's long-ago poetic line about "nature, rough in tooth and claw."

While Elvis holds center stage, two other performers are scuttling around the cabin's floor. They're box turtles, unnamed but also part of the very informal program being conducted by Donahou. It's one of the daily summer nature offerings at Lake Catherine, a dozen miles southeast of downtown Hot Springs.

Two of the three other snakes displayed behind glass as Donahou passes around Elvis are poisonous, for looking only. An information panel above their glass-topped enclosures pictures and describes the six venomous species found in Arkansas.

One of the Nature Cabin onlookers, a boy with a towel around his neck, has come inside from the park's swimming beach just a hop, skip and jump away. A bit farther along the shore sits the marina with its summer panoply of party barges and fishing boats. Also available for rent are canoes, kayaks, pedal boats and water bikes.

At 9:30 a.m. Saturday and Sunday, Lake Catherine visitors can take a one-hour guided cruise free of charge. Advance registration is encouraged for the cruise, which will explore the 1,940-acre lake created in 1924 by Remmel Dam, the state's first major hydroelectric project.

Harvey Couch, founder of Arkansas Power and Light Co., donated 2,048 acres of land along the lake's shore in 1935 to form the first among a number of state parks situated around man-made lakes. In 1937, the federal Civilian Conservation Corps began building some of the cabins that are still in use.

Hikers can choose among the park's four marked trails. The newest, as well as shortest and easiest, is Hidden Creek Trail, running for five-eighths of a mile along Slunger Creek near the park entrance.

More challenging are the other three: Falls Branch Trail, Horseshoe Mountain Trail and Dam Mountain Trail. Extending from 2 1/2 to 4 miles, all three pass the park's scenic waterfall as they traverse typical Ouachita Mountains terrain.

Should you spot a snake while hiking or strolling, the sensible move is to keep your distance while savoring the natural sighting. The critter in question could belong to the same harmless species as the Nature Cabin's Elvis. But unless you're a herpetologist (a reptile expert), take no chances.

To reach Lake Catherine State Park from Little Rock, take I-30 southwest to Exit 97 (Arkansas 171) and proceed 12 miles north to the highway's end. From Hot Springs, take U.S. 270 east and turn right on Carpenter Dam Road before turning left on Arkansas 171 and following it to the park.

The Lake Catherine visitor center's summer hours are 8 a.m.-8 p.m. daily through Sept. 2. Admission is free. The Nature Center is open 1-4 p.m. daily through Sept. 2. Available to rent are 20 cabins and 70 campsites, as well as a Mongolian-style yurt.

Call (501) 844-4176 or visit For lodging reservations, call (800) 264-2422.

Weekend on 07/17/2014

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