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Nature camp explorers find fun, not fear


Page Sheldon extended her arm like a tree branch while a 2-foot-long California king snake slithered around it.

"I'm not scared; I enjoy handling the snakes," the 10-year-old from Havre de Grace said. "I'm good at it, too!"

Page got the chance to develop her snake-handling abilities recently at the popular Swan Harbor Nature Camp, offered annually by the Harford County Parks and Recreation Department.

Campers at the weeklong day camp in Havre de Grace hunt for arrowheads, learn geology, hike, experience hands-on reptile demonstrations, embark on a canoe trip to a dormant volcano and take a kayak excursion.

Many of the campers are returnees, said director Bob Chance.

For example, 14-year-old Dan Comp of Havre de Grace has attended the camp for about seven years. He says part of the appeal is the new activities each year.

"We come out here and find snakes and artifacts and old tools," Dan said. "It's always fun to see what Ranger Bob has planned for us each year. He's full of surprises. One year he took us to an old building and told us it was said to be haunted, and he came running out of a room and scared us. He's a lot of fun."

Some activities - such as reptile handling - are staples each year. But Chance looks for new activities to add variety.

This year, campers took a trek down Swan Creek in Gashey's Run, once the location of the Maryland darter, an extinct fish.

They waded through ankle-deep water as they carried boxes and buckets containing some of Chance's reptile collection. When they reached their destination, the kids put the containers down while Chance quickly searched for a Y-shaped stick.

Stick in hand, he opened a box and told the campers, "There's only one snake around here that kills - the copperhead."

He pulled his 4-year-old copperhead out of the box with the stick and stepped back into the water. "Copperheads look like two other snakes around here: the milk snake and the corn snake," he said. "This is the one you need to watch for ... see its copper-colored head?"

Chance stood in the creek a distance from the kids as the snake coiled around the stick.

After returning the copperhead to the box, Chance took out a milk snake.

"Milk snakes look a little like a copperhead, but they don't stick their tongues out as much," Chance said.

Then he pulled out his 6-foot pilot rat snake.

"The rat snake eats its weight in rats every month," he said. "They live to be 25 years old. They can bite, but it's all in how you hold it."

The kids, trained in the proper way to handle the snake, didn't hesitate to take the reptile.

Some campers find learning to handle and identify the snakes useful away from camp.

"We had a big snake slithering across our front yard, and my mom was really jumpy," said Dan Comp. "But I had seen the same kind at camp and knew it wasn't poisonous, and I just followed it out of our yard."

However, first-time camper Amanda Phillips said the snakes take some getting used to. And handling them didn't make her more fond of them.

"Holding the snakes makes me feel uncomfortable," the 10-year-old Bel Air resident said. "They're so slimy to hold. It was creepy. I don't care if I ever hold another snake. But at least now I can say I did it."

Another program the campers enjoy is archaeology activities.

"It was exhausting to search for artifacts. We hiked all over the place, but we found an old arrowhead and some crude tools," said 16-year-old Peter Zelohofer of Perry Hall. "It's really neat when you actually find things."

Eleven-year-old Melanie McMullen said she enjoys the long treks, especially when they end in the water.

"Every day of camp I get so tired out, I go home and go to bed early," the Port Deposit resident said. "The one thing that made the heat OK is that we got to swim in the bay and wade in the creek when it was really hot."

Other highlights included a canoe trip to a dormant volcano on Garrett Island, where the campers ate lunch. On the trip back to their canoes, the group encountered a few surprises.

"We caught a 7-foot-long black snake and released it," Chance said. "Then we found an Indian petroglyph carved into a boulder. We also saw an osprey attack a great blue heron six times. That was not something you see too often."

On the final day of camp they took a kayak trip down Oakington Peninsula. They observed more than a dozen eagles and played a game of predator/prey, an environmental hide-and-seek.

Chance tells the youngsters that his camp is not for the squeamish.

"If you're afraid to handle snakes or hike through the brush in the woods, this is not the camp for you," he said. "This camp is an adventure every day, and you have to be prepared to do or try anything."

After enduring a week in the wilds with Chance, the campers get a T-shirt emblazoned with the words, "I Survived Ranger Bob's Swan Harbor Nature Camp."

And at the end of the camp, they feel they've earned it.

The final session of the camp will be held Aug. 15-19. The cost is $90.

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