Stay safe in the parks this summer

Published 9:59 pm Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Visitors are coming to Suffolk parks as the weather improves and temperatures rise, and a seasoned local has some good advice for them to stay safe this summer.

Park superintendent J.R. Ruggiero supervises Lake Meade, Sleepy Hole, Bennett’s Creek, Constant’s Wharf and Lone Star Lakes parks, each more than six acres. He and 13 other Suffolk Parks and Recreation employees make regular patrols between the five parks, along with smaller neighborhood parks in the city.

Working 40-hour weeks for the last 17 years, Ruggiero and his staff have never been bitten by a snake, rarely suffered from poison ivy and were only occasionally stung by wasps. He said some of the parks are local treasures, such as Lone Star Lakes.

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“Lone Star is known as Suffolk’s best kept secret,” he said. “Unless you know about the Chuckatuck area or visit one of the other parks, you really don’t know about it.”

Park staff have counted 222,900 visitors to the five regional parks from August 2016 to April, and 26,765 of them were at Lone Star Lakes over that span. Many of the visitors are locals that want to save money on travel during vacations and enjoy the outdoors.

“If you want a day trip and don’t want to travel far, come to Lone Star Lakes,” Ruggiero said. “There’s so much to do that you could spend a whole day here.”

For summer vacationers, there are some important safety tips for park activity.

Ruggiero said to keep an eye out for the telltale three-leaf layout of poison ivy, though some visitors may not recognize it when they see it.

“A lot of people don’t know what poison ivy looks like, and it’s everywhere,” he said.

He recommended applying bug spray several times a day with a high percentage of DEET, a chemical that repels ticks, chiggers and other biting insects. Park staff make sure to eliminate wasp nests at campgrounds, but visitors should still be aware of their surroundings.

“It’s always good to check a bench before you sit down for wasp nests, even though we check stuff like that regularly,” Ruggiero said.

He said that he typically finds between three to five snakes weekly when patrolling during the summer months. Venomous snakes indigenous to southeastern Virginia include water moccasins, copperheads and rattlesnakes.

Most of the snakes found are not venomous, Ruggiero said, but even non-venomous snakes are cause for concern. Black rat snakes, for example, carry diseases from rats and other prey.

But Ruggiero made clear that snakes only attack when provoked.

“A snake is not going to just sit out there waiting for someone to come by,” he said. “They’re going to get out of the way.”

He repeated an old saying for Boy Scouts and hikers.

“If someone gets bit, it’s usually the third person in line,” he said. “The first one alarms the snake, the second one startles it, and the third one gets bit.”

He recommended staying on well-used paths not only to stay away from snakes, coyotes, bears and other animals but also to keep track of where you are in the park.

“It’s still pretty rural,” he said. “You could get lost or bit by something and if people don’t know where you are, they won’t know where to start looking.”

He said visitors need to be cognizant of their surroundings and use common sense as they fish, hike, bike and enjoy picnics this summer. Others will be crabbing and running the trails.

“We have regulars that come out here the same time every day to run the park,” he said.

Lone Star Lakes Park, for example, offers opportunities for the whole family in a backdrop unlike the rest of Suffolk.

“You can come to Lone Star Lakes Park and it’s like you’re not even in Suffolk anymore,” Ruggiero said.