The summer flew by in a wonderful kaleidoscope of sounds, smells, texture: bird calls, giggles, wet grass, cottonwood sap, oozing mud, smooth bark, and clear refreshing water. Each day a different adventure around the wheel, the book of nature, opening up mysteries and making them touchable, tangible, real. This was my childhood and now I have come full circle and offer a new generation a chance to connect and find their place of belonging.
As you read these stories allow yourself to remember your own stories, those times in nature that grabbed hold of you and left an imprint, a smell, a touch so strong you remember it even now years later.
The East is the beginning of the wheel, sunrise, the dawn chorus of birds, awakening and a call to awareness. We begin with hazards not to instill fear but to drive it away through a growing awareness of what the real hazards are and how to avoid them. Kids are full of stories of bears, snakes, spiders, wolves, and mountain lions. These were not our main hazard this summer; they were much smaller and belonged to the order hymenoptera. If you have never been attacked unsuspecting by a group of bees coming out of a ground nest it is quite an experience. I was with a small group walking in the forest when they struck. My first instinct was to run but the note of terror in a young girl’s voice made me run back towards the swarm. Her feet had become entangled in some sticks so I wrenched her free, picked her up and ran for safety. What was a moment of terror quickly turned into a moment of bonding as other kids quickly picked plantain and started rubbing the stings on the three of us who had been stung.
Southeast is full of energy and exuberance, the age of wonder (where most of our kids were at), and the place of the motivators (things to catch, eat, climb, and tend). How many adults remember those moments of catching tadpoles, snakes, bugs, and frogs. The wonder in young faces as they splashed, crawled, jumped, whooped, and pounced was infectious. Mother nature had prepared the pond site perfectly for us with a shallow water area perfect for motivating. Frog after frog was caught(60 Northern Leopard Frogs in all) and safely transferred to a bucket of clean water for inspection and identification, the kids reveling in their catching prowess. One young man did a flying leap which I watched in wonder, thinking there is no way he comes up with anything, to my surprise he rose dripping from the water with a massive painted turtle in his outstretched arms, a smile of pure joy and light radiating from him. For a moment he was the king of the pond, young Tom Sawyer come to life, as they kids gathered round to inspect his prize. To eat food in its natural setting straight from the source is something sadly that is getting farther and farther from many people’s experience. The fear of eating something poisonous is very prevalent and the knowledge of what is edible is woefully deficient. Our rule at camp was that no one eats anything without first asking. Fear turned to wonder as many of the kids ate hand-picked berries for the first time, huckleberries, raspberries, wild currants and saskatoons. Hand to mouth, plant to human, a connection as old as life.
The South is where hard work and perseverance come into play. And while summer camp is more about playing, learning, exploring and connecting the elements of the south always come into play. We looked at a collection of animal feet and learned about toes, claws, heel pads, and general sizes of feet. Then it was time for some exploring and tracking. We found a really good candid track right off in some dried mud and a lot of questioning brought out the story. With the older students, the day fell on July 4th in session 1 and only 2 kids showed up. No problem they got an in-depth tracking experience. We explored deep into a ravine where we normally don’t take the whole group. At this point, one of the boys decided to stick his finger in a hole in a tree, mistake, turned out to be a bees nest. He promptly got stung on the finger, yelled bees, and took off running. The boy next to me took two steps and launched himself about 10 ft across a creek. My co-instructor Haley followed right in his footsteps also sailing across the creek. I remained calm and just sidled away through the trees. Though the boy’s finger was throbbing, we put some plantain on the sting and continued down the creek, perseverance. We discovered a whole area that had been chewed by a beaver. We cautiously explored the stream banks to preserve any tracks we might find and there in the mud was the somewhat strange long-toed track of a beaver, cool.
The Southwest is about wandering and relaxing, resting after the hard work of the south. We took long exploring walks all over the property, letting the kids choose their own adventures and follow their natural curiosity. We began letting the kids climb the lowest branches of trees, no more than two kids in any tree. After a while, when we would stop for a snack break they would scamper up and find a perch to hang out on, dozens of legs dangling down, joyfully swinging back and forth. The Southwest is also where we learned about plants: we played games with dandelion, plantain, clover, wild ginger, horsetail, bird’s foot, yarrow and other common plants. I broke out my friend Tom Elpel’s book, Botany in a Day, and taught the kids 8 major plant families by playing memory. Finally, we harvested fresh cattails and I brought some dried ones and we wove mats and braided cattails into headbands, armbands, little baskets, and ropes. I was running low on cattails at one point and went to go cut a few more, a few kids asked if they could help and I said sure. What I thought was a quick relatively normal task they found incredible, “this is amazing in here, it feels like a jungle”. The cattail jungle became a regular spot after that with kids navigating through the maze at the end of each day.
The West is a place of community and coming together. It is a look at the whole picture and how everything is connected and important to everything else, why there is nothing that can be just thrown away, taken advantage off, wasted or despoiled. The water, soil, plants, insects, animals, trees, birds, sun, moon, planets, and universe all important and connected. We played games that emphasized working together, “Dead Ant” becoming a favorite of the summer. We mapped the land and as we walked we gave everything new names to further connect us to the land. Shady Grove where we start every day, the wolf den and twin cedars an often used spot, but the kids’ names were the best: things like ambush forts, acorn way, branch ranch, great everest hill, and the lost forest. Now when they walk the woods they recite the names of each place we come to; their memories linked with the land.
The Northwest is where we celebrated the heritage animals of our region. Animals that have played an important role in the shaping of the land and culture that has developed here: the salmon, bear, moose, beaver, deer, eagle, raven, and wolf. The energy here is of harvest, celebration, and remembering. It is difficult to talk about these animals without also discussing the indigenous peoples who developed alongside them and their history in these lands. We shared stories of Sandpoint’s history and some legends about salmon and then it was time for a celebration. Magic, wonder, inspiration, joy. . .glimpses I get in the faces of the kids as their wild natures are let out, and they are free to express themselves. We celebrated the animals that have long lived, walked, swam, and flown over these lands by becoming them. We gave the kids charcoal, face paint, string, cattails, sticks and encouraged them to let their wild sides out. Some became eagles, osprey, deer, others more exotic, tigers, panthers, chameleons, and snakes. Then we headed down into the cedar forest and began a celebration feast. I started a fire using a bow drill kit, using only friction to create a little coal to start our central fire. We sent the kids on gathering missions to collect skunk cabbage leaves, fir needles, and cattails. When they returned we had them wrap salmon filets and apples in the skunk cabbage and place them in the coals. We fried onions with the cattails and steeped the fir needles in hot water. We brought a big batch of bread dough and showed them how to wrap it on the end of a stick to be baked over the fire. The salmon was not the hit I imagined it would be with the little kids, but one little girl loved it, “Oh this is amazing, I love fish, oh this is so good, I could eat this all day”. The stick bread with butter and honey went over much better, “I am going to do this next time I go camping”. We sang and danced to some banjo music, drank fir needle tea and then sat back and watched as the kids galloped, cavorted, roamed and imagined themselves into animal dreams. One group became excited by the idea of eating ants ( they taste lemony) and dug into rotting stumps all over the forest. Another group worked hard with the bow-drill and with three of them produced a coal and put it in a tinder nest and blew it into flame. A fitting end to a day of celebration, connection and fun.
The North is about storytelling and integration, the wisdom of the elders and also trees. I shared the story of my journey into nature connection and the people who had inspired and guided me, going back to Tom Brown Jr. and Stalking Wolf, and how they were now part of a continuing story. A tree treasure map led the kids from tree to tree, directions, and paces marked out for the kids to follow. The final destination was a big hideout built down in the woods out of natural materials. The kids all crowded inside giggling and laughing. At the end of every day, we gave the kids time to write in their nature journals. We encouraged them to capture their favorite moments in either words or pictures:
“I choght nothin but I stil had fun”.
“In my secret spot a bird landed right next to me”.
“I saw a would peckr”.
“Hi, I am Glenn and today Aug. 1st, 2017 at camp wilder I saw a robin fly in to a spider web”.
The Northeast is where we complete the circle around the wheel, wrapping up and also preparing for another journey. The final day’s focus was on birds and specifically on bird language. The idea that birds speak a language that we can learn to understand. The kids did bird skits, acting out alarms, songs, and companion calls using both bird language and English translations. We sent the kids out on their first bird sits, taking notes of calls, songs, and alarms and seeing if they could tell how far away and what direction they were coming from. We played eagle eye and a big capture the flag type game called Nest Robbers. We finished with a big sharing circle where kids could share their highlights of camp and what was special for them. I started by saying that I had so many highlights and special moments that it would take me hours to tell them all. A little boy named Roan interrupted me with a gleam in his eye and said fervently, “Tell us”. I shared for a few minutes, but later after camp was over and I was sitting alone outside I wished I had taken Roan up on his offer. I wish I had poured out the river of joy, laughter, stories, excitement, wonder, kindness, friendship and awe that I was a witness to during my time in the forest with them. How much light and potential I see in all of them and how every time I see a kid connect to nature I feel more hopeful for the planet and for the quality of life that they will now have.