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Environmental teacher is avid on subject, instructs 'from heart'


Be careful not to speed as you pull into the driveway at Bob Chance's home near Darlington. There's a "Turtle Crossing" ahead.

In the 17 years since Mr. Chance moved to 7 acres of farmland in the tiny Harford county village of Berkley, he has transformed cornfields into a lush sanctuary for reptiles and other wildlife.

"I like to walk in my back yard and see a black snake or a turtle sunning itself or a bluebird building its nest," said Mr. Chance, an avid environmentalist. "I want wildlife to stop by for something to eat and drink as they migrate."

From September through June, Mr. Chance works as a teacher at the Harford Glen Environmental Education Center. He leads fifth-, seventh-, ninth- and 11th-graders on snake hikes, pond studies, canoe trips and bird walks.

'Tread gently'

"I teach young people about the land and the wildlife that they need to protect," Mr. Chance, 49, said. "We need young ammunition to continue to carry the flag. I try to inform them to recycle and to tread gently on the planet and to speak up for things that can't speak for themselves."

Now that school has closed for summer vacation, Mr. Chance will have more time to tend the Christmas trees he raises and sells each winter.

"I love mammals, hawks, rocks and trees," he said. "And I really like reptiles. They have always been the whipping boy, so misunderstood. They don't need to be killed. They have a niche and a purpose, and they are good environmental barometers as to the overall quality of the land and the water."

Perhaps this summer he'll have time to finish a rocky waterfall that flows into one of eight ponds that he has built near his Victorian farmhouse. His property is an attractive home for red-eared slider and painted turtles, snails and chubby black toad tadpoles with flicking tails.

Bluebirds, quail, black snakes and sharp-shinned hawks are his regular visitors. Waterfowl, salamanders and toads breed here. Rows of sunflowers and shade trees attract birds of all varieties.

"This is my therapy," Mr. Chance said of his home. He shares it with his wife, Mary, 47, who is acting director of community services for Harford County; their youngest daughter, Mariah, 14; and three friendly Labrador retrievers -- Rafiki, Noel and Ginger.

"I put all the energy I have left onto this little piece of land," said Mr. Chance, who was diagnosed with prostate cancer in summer 1993.

Though the water and forest have always been his sanctuary, he has felt especially connected to his land since his bout with cancer.

"I come here to search for peace," he said. "Realizing you might not have a long life, makes you appreciate your friends and nature."

His cancer in remission, Mr. Chance recently led a group of cancer survivors on a Relay for Life, an event sponsored by the American Cancer Society in Bel Air to help raise funds for research in curing the deadly disease.

As honorary chairman, Mr. Chance wanted to convey the message that diagnosis with cancer is not a death sentence and that more than half of all patients fully recover.

'I like to explore'

But he also likes adventure and tries to spend some of his free time traveling. He has visited Africa, Fiji, Tahiti, Samoa and French Polynesia. He has backpacked through New Zealand, stood on the beach in Costa Rica watching giant sea turtles lay their eggs and swum with a sea turtle in a lagoon off the island of Maui in Hawaii.

"I get bored easily," he said. "I always want to canoe on a new river or photograph an animal I've never seen before. I like to explore and meet new cultures."

Mr. Chance has been a teacher in Harford for nearly 30 years. He joined the Harford Glen team in 1990. Before that he was a teacher at C. Milton Wright High School for 10 years.

In 1972, while teaching at Bel Air High School, he founded the Susquehannock Environmental Center with his students to encourage county residents to recycle. He served as town commissioner of Bel Air from 1974 to 1978.

"I was a young idealist and I had a lot of energy," said Mr. Chance. "My students wanted a challenge."

With great excitement, he points to a big red-bellied turtle that skitters off a log into the biggest of his ponds -- a half-acre marshy habitat where the rare reptiles with shells as big as 16 inches across live among prolific lotus plants.

"Sometimes they leave and come back," Mr. Chance said of the turtles. "I feed them and they're happy here. It's a nice habitat and they know nobody's going to kill them."

Snakes in class

He has a collection of snakes that he keeps in his study -- king, corn, milk, indigo and copperhead snakes, as well as a boa constrictor. The nonpoisonous snakes and his turtles often accompany him to classes, where he uses them as teaching tools.

"It's really good when you can put a turtle or a harmless snake in a kid's hand," he said. "You can feel their sense of wonder. And it makes them more responsible in later life to respect wild lands."

Mr. Chance has been interested in turtles since his childhood, when he would collect box turtles along the Gunpowder River.

"I'm fascinated by their markings and their personalities," he said. "They are very individualistic. No two are marked exactly alike."

Unfortunately, he said, box turtles are becoming rare. They've been killed by cars, hit by lawn mover blades, poisoned by lawn care chemicals and sold to Europeans who like to collect them.

He encourages his students to rescue them from the road whenever they can and feed them what they need to survive: night crawlers, raw ground beef, tomatoes and strawberries.

"I try to get my students to view the land with a sense of curiosity and wonder," he said. "I want them to know that they have the power to sustain it or to pave it."

Sometimes, he concedes, he gets a bit too serious when he's spreading his environmental message.

Advice: 'Lighten up'

"People have told me I should lighten up," he said. "I wish I laughed more. I am intense about what I believe in, but I try not to be an environmental extremist. I just feel that everyone has to pitch in."

He points to the strips of old carpet between his garden rows, the bundles of newspaper that make biodegradeable mulch.

"It's not too hard to teach ecology if you really are a proponent of it in your private life," Mr. Chance said. "I speak from the heart."

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