A night with the park rangers at Lake Tobesofkee on the Fourth of July

Lake Tobesofkee’s 25th annual Sparks Over the Park Independence Day Celebration

Lake Tobesofkee Director Donald Bracewell talks about the 25th Annual Sparks Over the Park Independence Day Celebration.
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Lake Tobesofkee Director Donald Bracewell talks about the 25th Annual Sparks Over the Park Independence Day Celebration.

People gathered at Sandy Beach with their American flag swimsuits. Kids were throwing a football, and the smell of charcoal and lighter fluid filled the air.

That’s Independence Day at Lake Tobesofkee.

At 5:30 p.m. Thursday, the park rangers were directing traffic and helping people find parking spots before the 24th Annual Sparks Over the Park Independence Day Celebration.

It’s a busy day for the park rangers, but it’s a day Lakes Tobesokfee Director Donald Bracewell said he always looks forward to because it brings so many people to the lake to see the fireworks.

Four hours before dark, a child is already asking the grownup beside her, “Is it time for fireworks yet?”

6:00 p.m.

As the park fills up with more and more cars, the park rangers moved closer and closer to the gate to direct traffic.

The Travis Bryant Band began playing at 6 p.m., and Melinda Cameron made her way closer to the stage.

She said it was first time at the Independence Day Celebration, and she loves the whole atmosphere at the lake. She planned on bringing her family back the next day to fish.

“I’m just enjoying myself. I haven’t done this in years,” she said. “I’m glad we came here.”

JENNA EASON/THE TELEGRAPH Macon, GA, 07/04/2019: Melinda Cameron stands at Sandy Beach Park listening to the Travis Bryant Band at the 25th Annual Sparks Over the Park Independence Day Celebration at Lake Tobesofkee. She says, “I’m enjoying myself. I haven’t done this in years.” Jenna Eason jeason@macon.com

Sheriff David Davis said he helped with patrol and traffic when the celebration kicked off 24 years ago.

“Everybody starts coming between about 7:30 and about 8:45, and all the streets clog up and the parks fill up to see the fireworks, and then once the fireworks are over with, everybody wants to leave at once,” he said. “For the most part, we’ve never really had any type of major incident.”

Davis said this is the big day for the park every year, so all hands are on deck to make sure everyone has a good Fourth of July.

7:00 p.m.

Six Lake Tobesofkee park rangers float around Sandy Beach and Claystone Park. Two game wardens patroled the waters and Bibb County sheriff deputies cover Moseley Dixon Road.

Park rangers Bryan Foust and Tim Simonelli waited at Claystone Park.

Foust said he only started working at the lake three months ago, but he and Simonelli have been to just about every Fourth of July celebration.

“We both grew up on this lake pretty much,” Simonelli said.

Foust said they both worked for the City of Macon before as traffic cops, so they weren’t nervous about working this event.

Simonelli said he could have been the only cop on the road at any given time if partners and fellow law enforcement were covering other scenes.

“We just always like it when everybody is settled down and acting right,” he said. “The biggest thing is being seen.”

He said everybody is staying quiet, but he joked that people might start fighting over places to sit when the fireworks start. Foust said the real challenge comes at the end of the night when people are leaving.

“Traffic is gonna be hectic, but Bibb County’s out there to help get it in and out, so it shouldn’t be bad,” he said.

While they wait, more people gathered on the edge of the lake with blankets and tents, and boats fly by to get a good parking spot.

Artemio Martenez lives close by and said he comes to the lake every weekend and has been at the Fourth of July celebration every year for around 20 years.

“It’s a special day,” he said. “We’ve got to celebrate freedom.”

Nicholas Daniels, from the Warner Robins area, said he and his family try to come to the lake for every celebration.

“It’s always been nice. You get to see the amazing people come out here. Everybody comes riding on the water. Everybody gets a little entertainment. It’s always fun,” he said.

Bracewell said the day started slow because of weather, but the crowd picked up before sunset.

“It’s going great. We’ve got thousands of people inside the gates now, and people are still coming in at the moment,” he says.

8:45 p.m.

It was time for rangers to get on the boat.

Foust drove the boat out to where people were lining up to see the fireworks. He, along with the two game wardens, told people to back their boats up to about 300 feet away from the fireworks.

As he approached a pontoon boat with kids swimming in the water next to it, a child said, “It’s the police.”

“Can I get y’all to move out here about where that other boat is cause they’re gonna shoot off right here behind you, and we want to make sure you’ve got enough distance, so if anything goes on, it don’t hurt,” Foust asked.

People who live in the surrounding houses had already started firing their fireworks.

9:15 p.m.

JENNA EASON/THE TELEGRAPH Macon, GA, 07/04/2019: Fireworks explode over Lake Tobesofkee at the 25th Annual Sparks Over the Park Independence Day Celebration. Jenna Eason jeason@macon.com

The official firework show began as explosions echo across the lake. Kids on the shore of Sandy Beach screeched after each explosion.

The show lasted for about 25 minutes before the big finale. As the final fireworks exploded all at once, people shouted, “’Merica!” and a boat nearby plays the song, “God Bless the USA.”

After the last firework explodeed, a person said, “I love this country,” as horns began honking over the lake.

10:45 p.m.

As the ranger boat neared the dock, cars lined up on Moseley Dixon Road. It would be more than an hour before everyone leaves the park and the park rangers can go home.

Bracewell said after the fireworks, he and his rangers had to make sure everyone was out of the park and the park was secure before leaving.

“About 12:30, myself and the rangers were on the road going home, so it wasn’t that bad,” he said.

Jenna Eason is a multimedia reporter at The Telegraph and creates serviceable news around food, culture and people who make a difference in the Macon community. Jenna joined The Telegraph staff after graduating from Mercer University in May 2018 with a journalism degree.