Champions come in all shapes and sizes. Some consciously put the common good ahead of their own, others elevate us by their inspiring example. Still others simply beckon, inviting us to enter that place where we are our better selves.
This year’s Champions of the Wild honorees each, in their own way, embody the very spirit of our majestic woodlands, our sparkling lakes and rivers, our pristine mountain pathways. Through them, we celebrate attention to habitat and species, indomitable spirit of adventure, dogged determination, nature as salvific therapy, lives of service and hope for all future generations.
Arkansas Wild is proud to honor these individuals. We thank them for what they represent and for the collective legacy to which they now belong in this land we love and call home.
By Dwain Hebda Photography by Drew Harris
Pipeline companies aren’t generally thought of as conservation-friendly; in fact, they’re often painted as the bad guys when it comes to the environment. That image bothers Constantine “Connie” Oslica, senior operations manager for Enable Midstream Partners, based in North Little Rock.
Oslica has been a company man for nearly 20 years, but he’s been an Arkansas outdoorsman his whole life. Six years ago, he found a way to serve both, allowing the natural and the man-made to better co-exist.
“Whenever you run a business, one of the important things is to do a little good along the way,” he said. “One of the things my dad taught me was to be a conservationist. If you’re going to go out and spend time in the woods and you’re going to hunt ducks or deer or turkey, you’ve got to take care of them, too.”
Oslica introduced Integrated Vegetation Management (IVM), a process that fundamentally changed how Enable maintained its pipelines. Arkansas was the pilot market for the program, now graduating to full-blown Integrated Habitat Management (IHM).
“Everywhere there’s a pipeline, there’s a right-of-way,” he said. “In the old-school world, we just mowed those right-of-ways. Today we’ve changed our habits and we’re doing something different.”
Workers no longer indiscriminately mow, and chemicals are used sparingly. Instead, employees walk the right-of-ways to take out woody and invasive vegetation giving beneficial native grasses and flora a chance to thrive. That, in turn, is successfully providing habitat for game birds, Monarch butterflies and other pollinators such as honey bees.
“One of the big pushes for Arkansas Game and Fish is to bring the quail back,” Oslica said. “The habitat we are creating on our pipeline right-of-ways is very friendly for quail and for turkey, too. As small chicks, both are very vulnerable, and if you don’t have the right kind of habitat for them, they won’t survive.”
Now standard operating procedure across 7,000 acres in Arkansas, Oslica is working to expand it to other Enable markets, and he’s also not shy about sharing it with other companies, some of which have adopted the practices. Quail Forever and National Wild Turkey Foundation have come calling and the program received a special award from the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission earlier this year. Such accolades are nice, but Oslica has a bigger prize in mind.
“When I was about 12 years old, there were two years in a row where the Monarch migration literally came over the farm,” he said. “We had butterflies on those trees such that they were completely consumed. You couldn’t see the leaves, you couldn’t see anything. That had a huge impact on me; I thought it was the most wonderful thing I’d ever seen. I saw it two times as a kid, and I’ve not seen it since.”
“If we do things right and we restore our right-of-ways so that habitat is out there, maybe my granddaughters will see those butterflies one day.”
The word “prodigy” isn’t normally applied to someone in their mid-30s, but then Jillian Elwart isn’t your typical individual. A mother and a lifelong fitness buff, she came into paddling sports only recently, but with great fanfare, placing at prestigious competitions around the world.
“I did a trip with my boyfriend in Mexico. We did white water kayaking down there,” she said. “I ran into a gentleman by the name of Ben Kvanli who introduced me to flat water sprinting. I was hooked from that point on.”
“I did my first time trials back in 2015 in a borrowed boat. I really didn’t know what I was doing. But, it was an experience.”
Many athletes might have been shy about hard-charging into an activity without so much as the requisite equipment, but, again, Elwart is hardly typical. Born with a birth defect that resulted in a right malformed leg above the knee, she’s always felt the urge to push beyond her limits. Her considerable drive even outstripped the available prosthetic technology of the day.
“Today, we’ve got knees that have microprocessors in them that control where the limb is,” she said. “If I’m walking down a hill or walking up the hill, if I need to change my cadence and walk faster, walk slower, the knee is very responsive. But that technology has only been within the last probably 20 years maybe.”
Elwart said she was always active growing up, if not particularly athletic—especially over the past 15 years,as she threw herself into her education and being a devoted mom to daughter Abigail. Through competitive kayaking, she’s making up for lost time.
A Challenged Athlete’s grant in 2016 enabled her to buy her own kayak, and she burst into 2018 with reckless abandon. Nationals in Oklahoma City yielded two golds, a silver and three bronzes; Worlds in Portugal yielded fifth in one event and a semis berth in another.
“I did the Pan American Games in Nova Scotia in September,” she said. “In women’s para 200 I got fourth place. The first three places were taken by Olympians, so I was very pleased. I also got a personal best at that one.”
Whether or not her 2020 Olympic dreams pan out, Elwart is already a role model for others. Having completed prosthetics and orthotics school in California, she works as a pediatric prosthetist/orthotist at Shriners’ Hospital in Shreveport, La., fashioning high-tech limbs for children. Needless to say, it’s an audience she revels in serving.
“In pediatrics, I’m serving ages 0 to 18 and it’s incredibly rewarding,” she said. “Not only working with the kids but the parents as well. They realize life is going to be OK and it’s limitless for their children.”
When Jim Hinkle was inducted into the Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation’s Outdoor Hall of Fame in August, it was to an extended standing ovation befitting one who had devoted his life to service in the outdoors.
“I feel fortunate to have been raised in a family that strongly believed in our heritage to hunt and fish,” he said. “I was taught to give back, and I have tried to do that with resources as well as volunteering with various conservation organizations.”
The son of a Mountain Home banker, Hinkle’s outdoor experience connected him with his workaholic father, Glen, whose lone outdoor indulgences were hunting Arkansas quail and South Dakota pheasants. Hinkle’s paternal grandfather, Hubert, tutored his grandson on everything else.
“Deer, squirrel, rabbit—you name it—we pretty much got it all,” he said. “I was also very fortunate that we had numerous small, clear, spring-fed streams in Stone County where I’d fish for a variety of different fish.”
Turkey was not among his early quarry; the species being so scarce in Stone County that turkey hunting was largely a lost art. It’s an ironic twist in a life story that would later include terms as both an Arkansas Game and Fish Commissioner (1996 to 2003) and on the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) board (2004 to 2018).
“The pinnacle of my opportunities to serve was the appointment to the AGFC,” he said. “I learned so much and had the opportunity to meet and make great friends. The National Wild Turkey Federation was much like AGFC, in that they do so many great things of which most of the public has no knowledge.”
AGFC had just achieved passage of the Conservation Tax and much of Hinkle’s tenure was spent ensuring tax monies brought to fruition what had been promised. In cooperation with his fellow commissioners, he lived up to these commitments through land acquisition and by building nature centers, setting a precedent for subsequent commissioners to follow.
He was similarly effective with NWTF – which included a stint as national president – changing the landscape for turkey hunting throughout North America. Today, 49 of the 50 states enjoy huntable turkey populations and the sport is far more accessible to youth, women and those with disabilities than when he started.
In retirement, he continues to foster wildlife on 900 acres he and wife Kay maintain strictly for habitat. His enjoyment of the outdoors is often had without taking a shot.
“I have somewhat lost the killer instinct, but I enjoy introducing people to the sport,” he said. “I get a big kick out of calling a bird, seeing them come in, hearing that bird gobble, seeing him strut, drum. It’s just one of the prettiest sights in the early morning that you’ve ever laid your eyes on. To be able to share that is really something special to me.”
Established 71 years ago as a day camp for children with asthma, Camp Aldergagte has grown to serve more than 1,700 kids annually. The 100-acre camp – hidden in plain sight in an urban forest – provides outdoor experiences for kids with a variety of medical conditions and special circumstances—activities they might not have access to otherwise.
Inclusion has always been the watchword for the camp, going all way back to its founding in 1947 on a former turkey farm that was at the time six miles outside the city limits. The earliest events held here helped address issues of race and included some of the first interracial summer camps in Little Rock.
Today, programming ranges from day camps for seniors and children 6 to 18 with special needs. It also hosts summer camps catering to kids with similar medical diagnoses including bleeding disorders, kidney disease and cancer. Another, Camp Kota, includes children with and without medical conditions.
Other camps and events are held in partnership with community organizations and groups. A partnership with the Arkansas Army National Guard provides a spring break retreat for kids whose parents are deployed or soon will be. Another, Camp Sunshine, hosts young burn survivors sponsored by Arkansas Professional Firefighters Association and Children’s Hospital.
And the organization continues to evolve, offering new camps that reflect the needs of the community. Camp Conquer, started last year, helps train high school peer leaders to identify and intervene when a classmate is struggling with thoughts of suicide. This summer, the inaugural Camp Hope welcomed kids who are survivors of domestic abuse, in partnership with Little Rock’s Women and Children First.
Even as the roster of camps continues to grow, Camp Aldergate’s fundamental formula remains unchanged. Utilizing the property’s lake, lodges, walking trails, zipline, treehouses, fishing pier and other features, kids get the opportunity to swim, fish, climb and generally appreciate the outdoors regardless of health or physical limitations.
As such, Camp Aldersgate has become a highly-anticipated summer tradition and the site of countless campers’ first opportunity to get out on the water, explore a forest trail or even meet someone with the same life circumstance as their own. Even longtime staffers never tire of witnessing such triumphs.
“The most accepted you’ll ever feel is by somebody who has not felt accepted,” said Ali Miller Berry, director of programs. “They can offer love and that sense of well, come on in, you’re welcome here.”
Anya Bruhin is living the dream many people long for, having transformed an activity she is passionate about into a professional career.
Currently a resident of Fayetteville, Bruhin was raised in nearby Farmington. She set out to be an educator and spent 11 years teaching ceramics to Pea Ridge middle and high schoolers. When her husband bought her a low-end mountain bike as a wedding gift, she began bicycling around the Fayetteville area with her son Fox in tow in a trailer and experienced firsthand the need for safe bicycle routes.
Not being the type to idly sit back and wait for others to implement change, she became involved with Bicycle Coalition of the Ozarks (BCO) to establish a safer bicycling environment. She also worked to establish outreach programs for children, to provide safe bike routes to school.
In 2016, the school superintendent received information from the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) related to establishing a mountain bike racing program. Seeing the word “cycling” in the title, he forwarded the literature to the “bike person” in the school district: her.
Bruhin, 40, accepted the challenge and threw herself into establishing, and then coaching, the Pea Ridge Blackhawk cycling team. She also scheduled clinics for students and went on to become a NICA Coach Supporter, which is someone who trains other coaches.
Her NICA duties led her to become involved with Ozark Off-Roads Cyclists (OORC), of which she became a board member. With the OORC, she became involved in mountain bike trail construction. The trail she is most proud of being involved with is The Grove, located in Pea Ridge, which the Blackhawks practice on.
Her family has been very supportive of her mountain bike involvement, with her son participating in the Breakaway Cycling Cyclocross program.
Bruhin also enjoys leading bike clinics specifically tailored for women, explaining, “One of my greatest rewards is teaching women the skills they need to become comfortable inserting themselves into coed group rides.”
Anything Bruhin becomes involved with she becomes totally committed to, and in June of 2018 the staff at BikeNWA noticed that drive and hired her as Bike Program Manager for Washington County. In this position, Bruhin’s primary focus is advocating for on-street infrastructure for safe, comfortable and low-stress connectivity for people on bikes. She said her previous experience working with BCO’s various outreach programs – dating back to those early years of towing her son around town – prepared her well for the new role.
“I am so grateful that something that was a hobby, that I love so much, has become a career,” she said. —Bob Robinson
The pride of Pottsville High School, Kaleb Tramel turned in a performance for the ages at the Arkansas National Archery in the Schools Program state championship last March. The event, sponsored by Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and contested at Hot Springs’ Bank OZK Arena, showcased the best archers from across the state, from elementary through high school levels.
Tramel, now 17, scored 293 out of a possible 300 points en route to the title. His 30 scored arrows included 23 10-point bull’s-eyes and seven more arrows just outside the mark, each worth nine points. His score was two points better than second place and topped a field of 287 archers in his division. Just six points separated the top five place winners.
“I’ve gotten pretty close quite a few times,” he said. “I’d always been top 10, and I never kind of got there. So it was great last year.”
While admitting to a case of nerves, Tramel felt in a groove throughout the tournament, thanks to a training tactic he’d employed leading up to the big meet.
“Before we even left for Hot Springs, my coach let me get out a target where we practiced out at Pottsville,” he said. “What I did is, I backed up to like 20 to 25 meters which is longer than what we normally shoot at. It made me focus on being consistent and all my fundamentals had to be perfect.”
“Once I get to 10 feet and 15 feet (competitive distances) it seemed a lot easier. It helped with my mechanics a lot.”
Tramel, a junior, was exposed to archery through his father’s bow hunting when Kaleb was a youngster. Even though the younger Tramel prefers to hunt with a firearm over a bow, the opportunity to compete in the sport was immediately appealing.
“In fifth grade, they said, ‘Hey, we’re doing archery.’ I was like, ‘Oh, cool,’” he said. “Went to the first practice and I felt like I could do pretty good at it.”
When he’s not hitting bull’s eyes, Tramel is hitting fast-balls in his other favorite sport, baseball. A pitcher, catcher and first baseman, he and his mates made school history last season by advancing to the semis of the 4A state baseball tournament.
“Baseball’s that sport that’s all about perfection and being consistent and precise. I guess that kind of hand-eye coordination, along with the preciseness of the game, blends with the concept of archery,” he said. “Everything has to feel the same. If you’re shooting a bow, you want to make sure that your mechanics all feel the same. It’s all about feel.
“You can feel it when you mess up, and you can feel it when you swing a baseball bat, too. So yeah, they kind of go together and they’ve kind of helped each other.”
Since the day he took over as Executive Director of the Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation, the fundraising arm of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, Deke Whitbeck’s focus has been on creating a better, more accessible outdoors experience for all Arkansans. It’s a catchy tune and one that more people in more parts of the state are marching to every day.
“I think we have got some great energy going on right now with the Commission and the Foundation and our future,” he said. “We are looking at some exciting opportunities coming up with public-private partnerships with like-minded people who are excited about the outdoors.”
Whitbeck took over the post in January 2017 and immediately started barnstorming the state, meeting people, shaking hands and generally dispelling any notion that central Arkansas was the organization’s only priority.
“The biggest chapter of Ducks Unlimited and National Wild Turkey Foundation is in northwest Arkansas,” he said. “I attended an event up there because I wanted to get the word out about Game and Fish, and we haven’t been as present as we need to be. They had 500 people there on a Monday night.”
Much of the excitement in northwest Arkansas has been surrounding the forthcoming $18 million nature center in Springdale. By all accounts, the new center will be the crown jewel in an already glittering diadem of similar facilities, and no one is better at selling the project than the homespun Whitbeck.
“We throw a big party, you know, come one, come all, for interested people who may be interested in conservation, who may be interested in duck hunting, who may be interested in bumblebees,” he said. “Just come listen to what we’ve got to share.”
He’s shown a similar touch with August’s Outdoor Hall of Fame banquet, the Foundation’s main fundraiser. The 2018 event was bigger and better than ever, another testament to the momentum he’s generated.
“I think there was every bit of 1,500 people in the room,” he said, a broad grin creasing his face. “It was packed, and I love seeing that energy. People are excited about being there.”
Whitbeck is particularly committed to bringing more of the state’s youth back to the outdoors. The father of two girls—Cate, age 9, and Charley, age 5—he sees in them the ultimate goal for his life’s work.
“(Technology’s)an everybody type of problem,” he said. “On my phone right now, I can pull up the next season of something and watch it all day long and miss the opportunity to take the girls down to the river and take a fishing pole. I think, as great as technology is, we have to be disciplined and put those devices down – parents, kids, grandmas, grandpas alike.”
“There’s so many things that nature teaches, like creativity and patience and persistence. Getting kids unplugged and engaged in the outdoors, that’s kind of my mantra.”