It's 7:45 p.m. Cool breezes chase away the warmth of a late spring day and the sky is shading to lavender, with orange clouds that look lit from within.
Hundreds of people have chosen to spend this magical time of day in one of Howard County's most beautiful and inviting places: Centennial Park.
And that's not surprising. Since it opened in 1986, the 325-acre park has been wildly popular, attracting about 1.8 million visitors a year, according to Gary Arthur, director of Howard County's Department of Recreation and Parks.
They come to fish, picnic, bird-watch, run, walk - with and without dogs - boat, play sports, pitch horseshoes, climb the playground and enjoy scenery not found anywhere else in the county.
And this week they will come to the park - between Centennial Lane, Route 108 and Old Annapolis Road - for the start of the 10-week Sunset Serenades Wednesday-night concert series near the dock. The Seldom Scene, playing progressive bluegrass, will open this year's series at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
Signs of the park's popularity are easy to see. Pavilions where people hold gatherings are booked far in advance, and there always is activity around the 2.3-mile path around the lake. In fact, Arthur said, "We're trying to develop things to relieve Centennial."
He noted that 3,000 games a year are played on the seven athletic fields, organized by the Department of Recreation and Parks or by youth organizations such as the Columbia Baseball Association.
"We turn people away," Arthur said. "It's booked solid." And because of the heavy use, the fields are "not in the best of shape," he said.
Arthur added that he hopes one of the two multipurpose grass fields at the park will have synthetic turf by next spring.
Park officials also have started limiting fundraising events such as 5K races and walkathons to three times a month. Though supporting local charities is important, Arthur said, the events fill up the park and tax the department's staff.
Also helping to relieve Centennial are two parks that recently opened.
Meadowbrook Park, located behind Long Gate shopping center, has a 10,000-square-foot playground, the largest in the county, with more than 500 components, Arthur said. It also has tennis courts, basketball courts, three diamonds, a multipurpose field and a 2.4-mile path through "some very attractive wetlands," which should draw walkers away from Centennial, he said.
Western Regional Park in Glenwood is about halfway completed. It has two multipurpose fields, three diamonds, two basketball courts and a playground.
Still, on a recent spring night, there was room to spread out one's arms at Centennial and breathe in the cool night air.
On the playground, children were climbing the rock wall, racing down the slide and playing hide and seek. Over at Pavilion D, about 50 people were celebrating the end of the school year with a cookout.
In Pavilion B, they were doing the same thing, except their food was catered. "We decided this would be a great place," said Melissa Parlette, a room mother for fourth-graders at St. John's Parish Day School in Ellicott City. "The kids have had a great time. There's plenty of room to run. ... It's a wonderful alternative to having it in someone's house."
In a nearby field, Girl Scouts from Troop 4329 were having their formal ceremonies, moving on to the next level.
And in the midst of all this activity, Amil Kakkar was flying his kite. Kakkar, who lives in nearby Dorsey Hall, said he comes to the park "pretty much every day" with his children. On this night, he had brought a picnic of sandwiches, tea and chips to share with his two young daughters, his wife and his mother.
"It's the best park," he said. "The lake makes it the best."
Elsewhere in the park, dogs were being walked, a man was tossing a baseball to a boy, Canada geese were preening by the boat ramp, two children rolled down a grassy hill, couples strolled side by side, a red cardinal sat on a fence, and a man ran along the path, iPod buzzing in his ears.
Centennial Park has become so central to life in the county that it's hard to believe it's only 20 years old.
But Arthur, who has been with the department since 1979 and has been director since 1997, remembers well. The county began purchasing the land that is now Centennial Park in 1967, he said.
About a dozen properties were purchased, he said. Most were privately owned, though one parcel was owned by a development company. Some were vacant and others had houses. The largest was 67 acres and cost $300,000. A stream ran through the property.
The park was built in four phases and officially opened in May 1986, Arthur said. At the time, the only other county parks were Savage Park and Rockburn Branch Park. Centennial was larger, more centrally located, and it had that lake. In 1999, it was honored by the American Society of Landscape Architects as one of the top 50 public facilities in the country, Arthur said.
The lake was built when an existing stream was dammed, and Centennial remains the only county-owned park with a major body of water, an attraction not likely to be replicated in the future, though lakes Elkhorn and Kittamaqundi in Columbia, both part of the Columbia Association, are popular attractions as well. "It's harder and harder to create a body of water," Arthur said.
At one point, a lake was considered for Western Regional, but the project proved too expensive, he said.
While Centennial Lake is beautiful to look at and ideal for boating and fishing, swimming in it is forbidden. The exception comes every May, when athletes jump in for the annual Columbia Triathlon, which celebrated its 26th year. The event includes a 10-kilometer run, 41-kilometer bike ride and 1.5-kilometer swim, all within the boundaries of the park.
"I think it's literally at the heart of the county," Rachelina Bonacci, executive director for Howard County Tourism, said of Centennial Park. "It has offerings for people no matter what they're interested in."
The south entrance was the site of the first cherry-tree plantings for the program Blossoms of Hope, the Howard County Cherry Tree Project. The trees, purchased by individuals and organizations, are being planted in several locations throughout the county, but Centennial Park is probably the most popular spot, Bonacci said.
"I would say, if not daily at least weekly, we get phone calls from people who have an interest in having cherry trees at Centennial Park," she said.
Because the park holds memories for so many people, it is also popular for bench and tree donations. Arthur said he's encouraging people to make similar donations to other parks, because Centennial does not need to add benches or trees right now.
Meanwhile, people are making memories at the park every day. Angela Burch, out for a walk with a friend, said she lives "right down the street" from the park and visits it four or five times a week. "Sometimes I walk, sometimes I run. I fish. I play tennis," she said.
"It's just such a wonderful park," said Joanne Sobieck-Lingg, who had taken her son, 16-month-old Henry Lingg, to the playground at the south area. "There's a lot here to see and do."
The playground, which has a climbing wall, slides and other equipment on a rubberized surface, was installed two years ago to replace a much smaller wooden play structure. The only complaint from parents is that it could use more benches.
Bob Finney, who lives in River Hill, hauled fishing gear out of his trunk on a recent weekday. "I'm going to try my luck," he said. He said he likes the convenience of fishing at Centennial Park, but noted that the lake's popularity makes fishing a challenge. "There are just a lot of people pounding on the lake all the time and fish are hard to come by," he said.
The park is popular with out-of-towners as well as people from Howard County. Arthur believes about 30 percent of park visitors live outside Howard County, but he's having summer interns interview people in the park to get a better estimate.
On a blazing-hot afternoon, Rosamond Gray, who lives in Prince George's County, and Alburt Sweetwine of Baltimore have met in the park to run twice around the lake, in preparation for a marathon.
Gray, 53, said he runs at Druid Hill Park, Rock Creek Park and Centennial, and he likes running at Centennial because of the gently rolling hills.
For Sweetwine, 42, who works in Howard County, it's a convenient place to stop on his way home from work. "I like the running at Centennial," he said. "Short mileage, just being away from the traffic, and the rolling hills."
Frank Williams, who lives in Baltimore, was visiting Centennial for the first time, on a paddle-boating date with Noelle Lynch of Montgomery County. Williams said he liked getting "away from all the noise of the city."
The two were drinking orange sodas they had purchased at the general store by the boat dock. "It's a nice place," Lynch said. They planned to return soon.
The 54-acre lake is 32 feet at its deepest point. It is stocked with largemouth bass, tiger muskie, crappie, trout, bluegill and catfish.
The most popular section of the park is the South Area (Route 108 entrance), followed by the West (Centennial Lane entrance), North (Old Annapolis Road entrance) and East (Woodland Road entrance) areas. Gary Arthur, director of Howard County's Department of Recreation and Parks, said the East Area, home to Pavilion H, is an underappreciated treasure. The pavilion can accommodate 300 people and has a nearby playground, basketball court, volleyball court, restroom and two horseshoe pits.
From March through November, 1,000 trash bags are used each month at Centennial. Arthur said he would like Centennial and the other county parks to become "pack in pack out" parks, where people take their trash with them. He estimated such a change would save $30,000 a year.
Park crews spend 15 man-hours a week cutting grass and 28 man-hours a week dragging and lining the athletic fields.
Lost and Found
Rings, watches, sunglasses, hats, gloves and more are found on a regular basis. The lost and found is at the boat dock (410-313-7303).
The Sunset Serenades program at Centennial Park begins Wednesday at the pavilion near the dock. Concertgoers may bring a picnic or choose from the concession menu. It's also recommended that visitors bring blankets or lawn chairs. Concerts begin at 7 p.m. A parking fee of $3 per car will be collected.
The Seldom Scene (progressive bluegrass)
King Teddy (swing, jump blues)
Automatic Slim (blues)
Ellis Woodward (children's music)
Dani Cortaza Group (salsa, merengue, Latin jazz)
The Pocket Change Band ("Buffet" style oldies)
The Bad Influence Band (rhythm & blues)
Sons of Pirates (beach music)
EWABO (steel drums)
David Bach Consort (world beat jazz)