The week at the Teen Leadership Paddle might sound like the plot from a television sitcom: A group of high school students leaves cellphones, video games and air conditioning behind to venture into the great outdoors.
But the nine Maryland teens paddling and camping their way down the Patuxent River this past week embraced the experience, enjoying a chance to hone both environmental knowledge and leadership skills.
Sponsored by the Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, the program is open to students entering grades nine through 12 in the fall. Founded in 2010, it includes sessions in July and August.
Participants must go through an application process. Trystan Sill, a counselor and education assistant, said applicants are quizzed about who their favorite leader is and their impression of leadership qualities.
"We've had kids from all over the country," Sill said. "One year, we had a boy come from California."
On the first day of camp, the teens take a Myers-Briggs personality test to help determine their leadership qualities, then are split into two teams. Throughout the week, each team picks a different "leader" for each day of the week.
"We want to give them the opportunity to lead their peers," Sill said. "We try and direct as little as possible."
The camp includes not only the leadership and educational components, but also the physical tasks associated with camping and canoeing.
Maddie Van Dyke, a 17-year-old from Crownsville, was taking part in the camp for her second year.
Van Dyke said she likes nature but gets few opportunities to experience it, other than walking through the woods behind her house. And even though by Wednesday she was suffering some mosquito bites, "I'd rather be here than at home inside doing nothing," she said.
On Tuesday, the campers canoed about eight miles from Queen Anne's County to a campsite at Mount Calvert Historical and Archaeological Park near Upper Marlboro.
"I've canoed once before, but it was tough," said Clara Benadon, 15, from Poolesville in Montgomery County. "Still, it was fun."
Wednesday morning, they boarded a pontoon boat for a guided tour of Jug Bay with Greg Kearns, a veteran naturalist at Patuxent River Park.
While the boat chugged along the wetlands, Kearns explained how human interaction and invasive animal species nearly wiped out wild rice plants — a vital feature of the ecosystem that feeds thousands of migrating birds each year.
He said that thanks to 16 years of naturalists' work, the area now has wild rice as far as the eye can see.
"You plant it, and the birds will come," Kearns said while steering the pontoon.
Wearing tan safari hats and holding binoculars, campers pointed out animals along the trip, including an eagle, osprey, turtles and a northern water snake. Campers also tested the water quality when the pontoon stopped near a water treatment plant.
Using instructions created for the camp, Van Dyke and teammate Dia Brown, 17, from Huntingtown in Calvert County, tested water nitrate levels — Van Dyke noted that nitrates from fertilizers or pollutants from rainwater end up in bodies of water, and can allow algae to bloom more quickly. Those blooms block sunlight and take oxygen from the water.
She and Brown tested to see if the water had a low number of nitrates. "So far, it's been pretty good," Van Dyke said.
Back at the campsite around noon, the teens ate a lunch they prepared and later cleaned their dishes.
Sill created binders with step-by-step instructions on chores, from dicing carrots and pitching tents to performing environmental tasks. She said counselors try to serve as facilitators, helping campers when they have questions but otherwise letting them figure things out on their own.
"We want to empower them to think for themselves," Sill said.
By the end of Wednesday, campers were learning about the archaeological aspects of the area, examining stone tools and guessing what the objects originated from.
When that was done, they raced to see who could take down their tent the fastest, then prepared for the four-mile canoe trip to their next camping site.
First-time camper Abigail Wenz, 15, of Annapolis said she liked being free from technology for a few days — and meeting new people.
Akshay Jey, an Ellicott City 14-year-old, said he was having fun learning on the trip.
"If I wasn't here, I'd probably be at home wishing I came here," he said.