For years people have requested that we provide some kind of camp for kids and this year things all fell into place at last. BRDC’s goals behind this camp, aligned with our mission, were to connect kids with nature through immersion, give them the opportunity to learn potentially life long enriching hobbies, and teach them 21st century skills including problem solving and critical thinking through interest-driven activities. Along with that we provided opportunities for kids to self-direct some of their learning opportunities and have fun.
Adventures we had, exploring we did, and the food was great. Seventeen kids descended upon the camp on a sunny Monday morning, arriving with large expectations matching their wide-eyed enthusiasm. From ages 8 through 12, more 8 and 9 year olds and more girls, the kids were given a brief orientation including making their own name buttons and listening to a quick description of their first day’s agenda. Grabbing binoculars and field guides, we set out for the river to spy on birds. Along the way, we stalked a wood thrush, and heard a variety of bird song from Carolina wren to Northern cardinal. Down on the river’s edge, cedar waxwings, downy woodpeckers, American robins, an Eastern kingbird and American goldfinches gave everyone the binocular challenge. Aaron Floyd set up his spotting scope to aid in close-up inspections.
We learned early on that kids need to refuel on a regular schedule, and fortunately we were prepared. So before our next program, apples, bananas, granola and fruit bars were consumed along with cool water…our staple thirst quencher. Then it was time for Fishbugs, a long BRDC tradition that kids love. Tables were set with collection jars, ice trays for sorting, and keyed field guides. Scrambling in Saddle Creek, nets in hand, we inspected the riffles, turned over stones, and collected a menagerie of aquatic critters including many stone flies, a few mayflies, caddisflies, snails, two or three crayfish and one salamander. Kids wrote down their finds, along with the birds, in their field notebooks, some taking a brave stab at sketching.
Heidi Breedlove primed the fire for a hotdog roast, so lunch was next. Lining up 17 kids around a fire pit was at least as challenging as getting all of the relish and condiments on the dogs, but everyone was well-fed and soon ready for the afternoon’s signature camp adventure program.
Rick Cavey designed this mapping/treasure hunt specifically for this age group and this summer camp, and spent quite a bit of preparatory time in the woods around the camp grounds preparing what became a thematic thread running through the entire three days. Monday’s exploration was first given to establishing three teams. Names chosen were Ravenous Raccoon’s Adventure Camp, Butterflies/Bees, and Dolphins/Eagles. The campers then created team flags by painting elaborate logos on white cloth and tying them to poles. They then set up team camp zones complete with three separate pop-up tents, followed by learning session on the basics of a compass, pacing distance, and reading a map.
As happened all three days, we offered free time and game time, giving the kids a chance to run around, play in the increasingly popular creek, and take quiet moments in their individual camp zones.
Tuesday dawned another perfect clear sky blue. The big event for the morning was a hike to a fish pond on the adjacent River Ridge Cattle Company property where Aaron and Brent Breedlove were waiting and ready for the big fishing event. Rotating through the three teams (while Scott Jackson-Ricketts, Fred Newcomb, and Claire and Susan Gleason offered field insect investigations), Aaron, Brent and Brenda Bonk took charge of the fishing event. Each kid tried their hand at fly fishing with poppers for bluegill. They semi-successfully avoided trees and tall grasses to launch the dragon fly imitations out onto the farm pond. Enough bluegill were caught to add a tasty treat to the lunch well earned.
Back at camp, Brent and Heidi fried up pans of fish and chicken for those who weren’t that excited about fish. We also offered fresh boiled potatoes, onions, chopped cucumbers, and other goodies including two crayfish harvested in Saddle Creek.
Immediately after lunch, while Rick was preparing for his increasingly complex adventure treasure hunt, Claire brought out her famous corn snake, Sylvester, for a close encounter with a most accommodating reptile. Some of the kids had never before felt comfortable around a snake, and one of Claire’s personal missions is to help people deal with their irrational herp fears.
Another rotation strategy emerged with Rick expanding on his mapping quest, requiring the team theme. The off trail kids were treated to special guest ‘Old Timer’ (Roald Kirby), who along with Scott, traded stories about and identification of trees around the camp. Weaving scary and informative tall tales, Old Timer and Scott talked about the history of tree nut and lumber harvest, the successional changes that occurred with the decline of American chestnut, and pointed out leaf structure that aids in tree ID.
Meanwhile, the treasure hunting kids moved deeper into the forest in search of clues instructed by their maps and compasses, eventually arriving at treasures promised. Tuesday’s goodies included a BRDC patch and a magnifying glass. Sites were defined by natural settings such as a moss covered rock with a small tree growing out of a deep fissure in the rock.
Snorkeling, promised and delivered, was Wednesday’s highly anticipated event. Leading up to it, however, was a morning of tracking exercises along the New River’s mudflats and Fred’s geology program.
In the mud, kids were able to ID raccoon, deer, shorebird, possibly rabbit, goose and insect tracks that were mostly laid down within the last 24 hours. While inspecting the confluence of Saddle Creek and the New, along the creek’s banks were many holes built by perhaps a variety of animals. We discussed who and what might have made those holes, including rodents, birds, reptiles and crayfish. Scott explained that more than likely birds would be kingfishers and swallows, reptiles (not likely) snakes, and pointed out that crayfish typically burrow on flat land with their signature piles of mud piled around their holes. While looking at the holes, one rodent too fast for any of us to ID, ran into one.
Prior to Fred’s geology session, Scott passed out paper and art tools, giving suggestions on how to go about documenting their camp experience. Field guides were available for inspiration, along with encouragement to describe the camp zones and surrounding area with personal maps. Every camper jumped at this opportunity and produced some amazing graphics.
Fred was ready with rock sample kits and tools such as nails and magnets to offer the kids a chance to experiment on their own. Sitting around the fire pit, he passed the samples around, while detailing deep earth history and entertaining a plethora of questions. Fred is a high school teacher, and commented on how much more inquisitive this younger group was than his high school kids. Also, quite amazingly, many of these young folks had retained recent geology lessons and were quite capable of keeping up. Wednesday’s lunch was an efficient sandwich event, with plenty of veggies to go with the ham and cheese staples.
Drum roll: Aaron and Rick’s snorkeling event. Retired Navy diver Rick taught all of the participants the proper technique to snorkel including how to clear a snorkel and keep the mask from fogging up. With snorkels and life vests the kids searched over rock crevices, riffles, plant beds and the mouth of Saddle Creek for fish and aquatic life. Several kids at first expressed a lack of interest in participating in this program…fear of bumping their heads into rocks, biting fish, ‘weird things’…but when push came to shove, not only did nearly everyone jump into the water, but most were exhilarated by the experience. One girl saw a sunken boat! We took advantage of the low water in the New, stayed close to shore, and provided 2 in-water guides and 1 ready on shore. None of these kids will ever forget that experience.
For our last day’s grand finale, Rick moved his teams, one by one, back into the woods for their most challenging treasure hunt. Using only heading and distance clues the explorers navigated through the woods independently to the final treasure of the week, an Audubon field guide to our region...a real and lasting treasure. Rotating, again, back at camp, Heidi provided games, Fred continued with his geology course, and free time in the creek was an option. Fred’s final teaching lesson was an identification demonstration of river stones through the process of busting them apart with a small sledge hammer. The kids fanned out in the creek, picking up interesting rocks and then lined up to discover what hidden clues were soon to be revealed.
Through Aaron’s and Rick’s efforts, certificates of achievement were offered, with most parents and/or guardians present, and an overview of our camp’s three days was celebrated. Accolades go to all of the kids first, their families, BRDC’s amazing volunteers, and various property owners who allowed us to tromp around the premises with will.
An overview of Blue Ridge Discovery Center’s first camp experience gives us energy to move this ideal community service forward. Our fine group of guides and program designers brought kids into the outdoors creatively and intimately. We offered a studied variety of the connections between people and the living others of our shared Blue Ridge Ecoregion…and the kids loved it. Stay with us as we develop our Young Explorer’s Club, definitively an extension of camp, but a year round opportunity to continue with the basic idea of growing that connection. And, most importantly, we all learned together!
Blue Ridge Discovery Center is grateful to the Raven Knob Boy Scout Council for the opportunity to hold our first summer camp at the Tommy Cox camp grounds along Saddle Creek near its confluence with the New River in Grayson County. We also wish to express our appreciation for the support of Keith Bobbitt, director of Raven Knob.
Further thanks to the volunteers:
Rick Cavey (Secretary, BRDC)
Brenda Bonk (President, BRDC)
Roald Kirby (Board member, BRDC)
And a special thanks to Brantley Ivey, who mowed the camp, trails, and through River Ridge Cattle Company offered other support along with Charlotte Hanes.