Nature is a wonderful thing, most of us can agree. And as a network of summer camps, you can be sure our staff and community never miss an opportunity to trumpet both the benefits and the joys of spending a little time in the woods. Nature is good for the mind, body, and soul – that much is certain – yet the pursuit of an ideal experience goes deeper than that. We recently published a piece discussing the notion of spending time in, and learning about, nature being more than just an amusement park. We can offer our campers, as well as each other, an outdoor experience that transcends the forest simply being a fun place to be. An experience in nature can be engaging, educational, and deeply revealing of the world around us, as well as help us realize that our place in that world is just a small part of life at large. And though the work is never done, these are just a few of the steps our program has taken to provide an ecocentric, full-bodied place to learn, grow, and explore.
Agriculture and Harvest
Most of us are so disconnected from the process, it can be all too easy to forget, or pay little attention to, where our food comes from. This can be particularly true of children; especially those who live in urban areas. Opening the door into the world of agriculture can be as simple as a counselor at Catoctin Quaker Camp pointing out a wine berry bush to a camper and saying, “Hey, did you know you can eat those? They’re delicious, try one!”
For a lot of our campers, the experience of being able to take something from nature and immediately consume it, completely fresh, is a new one. We like to empower our staff to take this educational experience and run with it. Each residential camp has a garden that campers have the option to play and work in, and fresh fruits and vegetables are often cooked up and prepared in the kitchen to complement their meals to much fanfare. At Opequon, foraging workshops have proven quite popular in which counselors lead campers on tours through the woods while giving instruction on the edible flora and fauna. This past summer, Shiloh used a portion of its land to raise pigs which campers were able to interact with. All of which lead to thought provoking questions and conversations about our human interaction with food, and how we get it.
One advantage of running a wilderness adventure program is that we attract staff and community members who have considerable expertise when it comes to the great outdoors. One of those people is former Catoctin Director and current Camp Property Manager, David Hunter. In addition to maintaining a busy schedule ensuring the maintenance and upkeep of our camps, David takes every opportunity he can to share his wide range of forestry knowledge with campers and counselors.
A walk through the woods with David includes gems like tree identification which is about more than just names and species, but learning about which trees can be used for what. A shagbark hickory can be used for hickory syrup. Root beer is made from the root of a sassafras tree. Firewood from a locust will burn forever. Other topics include lessons on the history of the land and how both human activity and environmental changes played a hand in the make up of the forest. How blight wiped out the once common American chestnut, or how European settlers are the cause for the explosive spread of the invasive species multiflora rose. And David isn’t the only one giving lessons. Those of us who also have his fascination and love of the forest spend time sharing that appreciation, and providing the spark to those who have yet to discover it for themselves.
Sustainability and Impact
Human impact on the environment is a topic of much discussion these days as well it should be. Understanding our role in the changing landscape of the planet is an important one that has lasting impact for generations, which is why starting early to get kids thinking about it can be so critical. At a summer camp, we have the advantage of being able to give hands-on lessons while providing examples that are a part of our drive to remain a program that is as eco-friendly as possible.
Explaining and living up to the value of “Leave No Trace” while out on wilderness trips is only the tip of the iceberg. Having a residential program that’s based in the woods provides ample opportunities to discuss the values of wilderness preservation and conservation as we brainstorm – both with ourselves as an institution as well as with our campers – how best to minimize our impact on the land. Such conversations have led to developments such as a newly constructed building at Opequon that is designed to be compatible with a rooftop solar array, or an exciting new Catoctin bathhouse that will utilize composting toilets to save thousands of gallons of water in a single summer.
Because we’re fortunate enough to be able to offer a getaway that provides magic and wonder, we want nature to be more than a destination. Our mission is to also make it a classroom, a laboratory, and an opportunity to learn how to be the best stewards of our planet that we can be.