By C. Julia Nelson

When hunting and fishing opportunities are few and far between, Jack Elrod, 83, relies on the creation of the Mark Trail comic strip to cure his craving for the great outdoors.

Having joined the original creation team that developed the daily newspaper comic strip four years after it was originated in 1950, Elrod, a resident of Sandy Springs and advertising illustrator, took over the artistic side of the strip when the late Ed Dodd retired in 1978.

Today the comic strip, which is based on the adventures of a photojournalist and outdoor enthusiast in the Lost Forest National Forest, continues to entertain and inspire thousands through King Features Syndicate. It is currently published in about 140 newspapers. At its peak in the 1960s, about 500 papers carried the strip.

Over the years, Mark Trail comics have become an essential vehicle for driving important environmental and ecological messages into the public domain in a light-hearted format.

“A lot of people will read a comic strip before they’ll read an article in the paper,” Elrod said. “I’m glad to provide that service (through Mark Trail) for the greater good.”

In recent months as Georgia has fallen victim to wild fires, a serious topic for Mark Trail has been the prevention of such fires through prescribed burns.

“Prescribed fires are the best thing they can do for the land. If they burned more of the underbrush, forest fires wouldn’t be so bad,” Elrod said. “Because of the smoke and the environmental problems (caused by major forest fires), they’re encouraging prescribed burns right now.”

While Elrod claims not to be an environmental expert, this outdoorsman stays on top of current events through various magazine and newspaper subscriptions.

“Just about everyday you can take something out of the paper about the environment,” he said. “I try to stay up to date that way.”

Other true to life topics have been the preservation of wetlands and the wilderness, the protection of manatees in Florida and shedding a positive light on the damaged reputations of various wild animals.

In an effort to reach and educate a younger target audience, Elrod has illustrated a handful of coloring books for various organizations.

“The coloring books I’ve done have been used to educate the kids as well as their parents,” Elrod said. “When a parent reads the book to the kids, they learn and the child learns (about environmental issues).”

In 1997, Mark Trail became the official weather radio mascot of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). As a spin-off from the radio show, NOAA created the annual Mark Trail Award 11 years ago and gives the award to individuals and organizations for saving lives during weather or civil emergencies.

“One man in a theater had a weather radio and it went off and he cleared the people out of the theater before the tornado tore it up,” Elrod recalled.

NOAA presented the 2007 award to Kathryn Martin, who spearheaded an effort to pass a law in Indiana requiring all mobile homes to be equipped with NOAA weather-alert radios. The law, nicknamed C.J.’s Law and pending final approval, represents the aftermath of a tornado that struck a trailer park in Evansville, Indiana where Martin’s 2-year-old son C.J. was spending the night with his grandmother and great-grandmother. All three died when the tornado hit at roughly 2 a.m. without warning.

For more than 60 years, the Mark Trail comic strip has proved to be an educational inspiration to youth across the country to get involved with environmental issues.

“I’ve had a lot of people who have said they got their interest in the outdoors because they followed the Mark Trail comic when they were young,” Elrod said. “It’s exciting. I’m happy that I can help in any way to inspire young people. It’s nice to know people appreciate what I do.”

By the look of the home-based studio where he continues to create Mark Trail, a plethora of people appreciate what Jack Elrod does and the educational contributions of Mark Trail to the general public. Hardly a square inch of wall space still exists between the endless awards, cartoons and proclamations presented to Jack Elrod and the Mark Trail comic strip over the years.

Among the list of appreciative parties represented on his wall are President Bill Clinton, the NOAA, the National Forest Association, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Far Side artist Gary Larson, U.S Department of Agriculture and Forest Service, the National Association of State Forests, the Advertising Council in addition to multiple fans from across the country.

“I’m proud that I could do something that could make a difference,” he said. “

In 1991, the United States Congress designated 16,400 acres of land in the Chattahootchie National Forest as the Mark Trail Wilderness as a tribute to the longstanding comic strip. Approximately 14 miles of the Appalachian Trail sets within the Mark Trail Wilderness.

Above and beyond all appreciative parties is Elrod’s family. He has been married for 57 years to his wife Candee, is the father of four kids and the grandfather of 11 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

While rumors have surfaced of Elrod retiring and issuing the comic strip over to the Sandy Springs Heritage Foundation, the rumors are unfounded at this time. While he still plans to issue them over at some point, it may not be for a couple years as Elrod is not ready to let the ink run out just yet.

“I should have retired a long time ago, but I enjoy doing what I do,” Elrod said. “I would hate to sit around and think about it instead of doing it.”