She is an East Coaster who left cold winter days behind in Massachusetts to earn a Ph.D. under the big Texas sky, where the beauty of nature calls her outside.
And although she has never hiked along the swift-moving stream, Sue Black Thickett can now call herself a Sugar Creek Junior Ranger.
“I think at 56, I’m a senior junior ranger,” Thickett said from her home in the Lonestar capital of Austin.
Thickett and her husband, John, are entrepreneurs who own a real estate franchise and a couple legal service companies and have backpacked, hiked and camped in the Sierra Nevada mountains. They logged 173 miles on a two-week hike with a group across the Tahoe Rim Trail.
The couple now stays closer to home for Thickett’s elderly parents, so when the coronavirus pandemic hit last spring they began searching for new projects to pass the time.
As John toyed with his model trains, Thickett started working toward badges in the National Park System’s Junior Ranger program. A Facebook friend from Boston sent her a link to the Junior Ranger booklets written by the NICHES Land Trust, more than a thousand miles away from Texas in west central Indiana.
“I really don’t know much about her, but apparently there’s an entire community of adults who are earning these during pandemic,” said Thickett, who has collected more than 150 badges.
“I know that she is way ahead of me on the Junior Ranger badge checklist,” she added. “There are literally hundreds of them out there.”
NICHES, the Lafayette-based nonprofit overseeing natural lands in 13 area counties, started its version of the program to educate families about the region’s native ecosystems.
Through funding from Duke Energy, activity books were produced for two NICHES properties outside Lafayette: Clegg Memorial Garden and Wildcat Creek. A booklet for Sugar Creek was later sponsored by the Montgomery County Community Foundation.
The Sugar Creek booklet has activities on crinoids, bats, reptiles and salamanders. (Thickett’s hellbender name is “Wrinkle Alligator.”) The activities are mostly geared toward children 5 to 12, but there’s no age limit for the program. Participants mail in the completed books to receive their badge.
The youngest Junior Ranger was a toddler.
“We’ve had people of all ages, but I do believe Sue might be our oldest Junior Ranger for NICHES and certainly the one who’s the farthest away, so that’s exciting,” said deputy director Julie Rubsam. She noted that downloads of the booklets on NICHES’ website have increased during the pandemic, as have visits to the group’s properties.
“I’m hoping Sue can make a visit sometime in the near future and we can hike a property together,” Rubsam added.
When Thickett cannot travel to a site featured in a booklet, she does research online and looks up pictures of the area to finish the booklets.
“Every once in a while, they ask for a responsible adult to sign a piece of paper, so I have to go find [John] and say, ‘You’re officially the responsible adult for today. Can you sign this?’” she said.
About Sugar Creek, she learned that nearly all sea life went extinct 300 million years ago, but a few species of crinoids survived and exist today. Thickett also discovered that the last glaciers covered Indiana 22,000 years ago.
She plans to travel to Indiana someday to explore the creek and some of the NICHES properties.
“It looks absolutely beautiful,” she said.