Summer’s still months off, but it’s not too soon to sign your kids up for camp sessions they’ll long remember. The camps are low-cost (or even free in some cases) and bound to get kids dirty. They might also change your children’s lives. Discover summer camps on national wildlife refuges. See if your local refuge has one.
Summer camps on refuges? Really? Why do some national wildlife refuges run camp programs?
Well, for starters:
Could refuge camp turn your young biophobe into a budding nature lover? Find out. But be warned: Your child’s enthusiasm may be contagious.
What do summer campers do on national wildlife refuges?
Tie flies, explore wetlands, go on rock scrambles, sample water quality, find clues to solve wildlife mysteries, river raft, play “bird bingo” to build binocular skills, sweep net for bugs, learn bird identification marks, make wildlife crafts, collect salmon fry, study insects and other invertebrates, identify animal tracks, paddle a canoe, use a bow and arrow, dissect fish.
Cool beans! Of course, your child won’t do all these things at any one refuge. But everything on the list above comes from real experience. And that’s just a small sampling.
Not all wildlife refuges offer summer camp sessions, but those that do are all over the country. Urban refuges like Wertheim on Long Island (with its Barrens to Bay Camp) and Tualatin River outside Portland, Oregon, (with its Nature Camp and its Riverkeepers Camp) have them. Rural refuges like Necedah in Wisconsin (Eco Explorers Day Camp) and the Fergus Falls Wetland Management District in Minnesota (Summer Explorers Biology Camp) offer them, too.
Many refuge-based camps are operated wholly by refuge Friends groups and volunteers. Conservation partners conduct some camp programs, like those at Assabet River Refuge in Massachusetts, run by Mass Audubon. In Alaska, the Fish and Wildlife Service supports summer camps on 14 refuges in cooperation with Alaska Native tribes and other non-profit partners. No refuge is too remote for summer camp: There’s even a Camp Shutterbug at Guam National Wildlife Refuge in the Pacific, 6,000 miles from California.
Some camp programs are fairly new, like the one begun in 2013 at Red River Refuge in Louisiana. Others are community institutions. The free Marsh-In Summer Camp at Don Edwards San Francisco Bay Refuge has operated for more than 30 years. Most refuge camp programs serve elementary and middle school children.
Some camp programs, like San Francisco’s, train budding conservationists at the same time these teens or pre-teens teach younger campers about nature.
Refuge nature camps are big hits with kids and parents.
Registration opens in March for Necedah’s Eco Explorers Day Camp, which runs two identical, one-week sessions in July and August, serving 80 kids a year. “The families who know have the form in March 1,” says Katie Goodwin, the refuge’s visitor services manager. “We normally get three-quarters of slots filled before school’s out. I really think it adds value to the rural communities to have something structured and fun for kids that takes them outside, allows them to learn and discover.”
Many parents agree.
“Thank you!” reads a letter Goodwin received from Darcy Gaston of Mauston, Wisconsin, after her two children’s first year of camp. “Never before did they stop to look at a dragonfly and appreciate the detail. The observation skills they learned have caused our whole family to stop and enjoy the nature around us.”
In Louisiana, Terri Jacobson, lead ranger at Red River Refuge, hears similar feedback. “Parents of Bird Camp children say they learn about birds too because campers have 'bird-brain homework' home each night. The children talk with their parents about what they did at camp and share what they learned. Parents say their kids come home excited and often tired from all the camp activities.”
On Alaska refuges and nearby lands, science and culture camps serving rural youngsters combine science and Alaska Native cultural tradition.
The week-long Henshaw Creek Science Camp, for example, hosted in partnership with the Tanana Chiefs Conference, takes place each summer at Kanuti Refuge.
“It’s an annual gathering that community members of Allakaket look forward to each summer,” says environmental education specialist Allyssa Morris, who coordinates three science and culture camps for Arctic and Kanuti National Wildlife Refuges.
“The camp invites the youth of Allakaket, Alatna and Fairbanks from sixth to twelfth grade to participate in the camp… Elders act as mentors, and local residents serve as boat drivers to ferry participants from the village to the camp site. Activities include learning about salmon ecology, survival and outdoor skills, water-quality monitoring, and more.”
For three days in June (June 27-29, 2017) lucky fifth and sixth-graders attend the annual Summer Explorers Biology Camp at the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center, located at the Fergus Falls Wetland Management District in Minnesota.
Campers explore the biology of prairies and wetlands. In years past they’ve helped mist-net and band songbirds, trap minnows and search for scat-mimicking tortoise shell beetle larvae.
The Prairie Wetlands Learning Center is also the host site for the Minnesota Waterfowl Association’s Woodie Camp. The residential camp for 13- to 15-year-olds from all over the state will take place August 6-12, 2017.
In Oregon, the Friends of Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge take pride in the Nature Camp they host each year at the refuge. “It relates back to educating and instilling a conservation ethic in present and future generations,” says Seth Winkelhake, environmental educational specialist with the Friends group.
The week-long program for 30 third- through sixth-graders combines environmental education skills such as bird identification and wildlife tracking with arts activities such as photography, nature journaling, paper making and wildlife crafts. A camp blog features daily highlights so families can follow along.
Six middle-school and high-school camp assistants learn leadership skills while they guide younger campers.
In 2002 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recognized the camp as one of its top five environmental education programs in the nation. The camp serves students from kindergarten through eighth grade, teaching them about the area’s natural and cultural systems through hands-on learning, self-reflection and group discovery.
A heart-warming five-minute video, told through the voices of young campers, shows why It's Hard to Complain about Salmon Camp.
Long Island’s ecology is the focus of summer camp at Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge in Shirley, New York. The hands-on, interactive camp engages youngsters in exploring the wildlife on nature trails, seeing what lives in and along the Carmans River and observing the Central Pine Barrens ecosystem.
Citizen science, animal tracking and microscope discovery are part of the process.
Some refuge staffers get almost as much of a kick out of refuge camp as the campers themselves.
“Summer camp allows us to really connect with the kids,” says Terri Jacobson at Red River Refuge. “You get to see the kids' personalities, see them grow in skill level and confidence. Often, children are trying new things for the first time at summer camp – touching or holding a snake, paddling and steering a canoe, trying archery, identifying animal tracks, building a beaver dam in a pan, going off trail in the woods, eating wild plums or seeing a wonderfully colored painted bunting with binoculars.
“I love summer camp!”
At Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, where campers get to be Junior Rangers for a few days every summer, ranger Sarah Wyatt strikes a like note.
“A lot of these kids touch their first worm or catch their first fish at our summer camp,” she says. “It lights up their world to see that line pulled tight as they reel the fish in. And then they’re hooked!"
When campers learn a new skill, such as casting a fishing line or drawing a bow, she shares their excitement. “My hope as an educator is that they will take that experience and grow upon it.”
This year’s Junior Ranger camp sessions at Okefenokee Refuge will take place June 14-16 for ages 6-9, and June 28-30 for ages 10-13.
Junior Ranger Camp will also take place this summer at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum in Philadelphia. Three sessions will serve ages 8-10. Information: at 215-365-3118
Registration dates for some refuge summer camps: