Summer camp at a pristine estuarine research center in Abingdon is all about appreciating nature.
The staff at the Anita C. Leight Estuary Center on Otter Point Creek teaches children to paddle a canoe, build a shelter and light a fire. Campers hike along the shore, chase a frog hopping through the marsh and identify an animal by its tracks.
Or, maybe, if they are a tad too young for the more strenuous activities, they decorate picture frames with leaves and milkweed pods, capture small insects in a bug box and race mealworms on paper plates.
"We really try to get kids into nature," said Shanna R. Schoen, park manager. "We want to inspire kids to appreciate and love nature. That happens at an early age. We may not get a lot of scientists out of these camps, but at least we will get respecters of the earth."
The center overlooks a tidal freshwater marsh that is one of three nationally designated estuarine reserves in Maryland and one of 27 nationwide that are protected and designated natural field laboratories for research and monitoring.
The 93-acre park and creek, a shallow tributary of the Bush River, are home to bald eagle, osprey, river otter, beaver and heron, as well as hundreds of eager day campers during the summer.
"This camp is fun and close to my house," said Brady Shea, 7, accompanied by his 5-year-old brother, Will. "You can fish and just learn about stuff. It's a lot better than school."
Brady and Will joined Small Wanderers, the center's first and youngest campers this season, in a study of plant and bug life. Wearing their own version of antennae - fashioned from pipe cleaners and cotton balls - the campers combed the woods for small insects. The more daring boys overturned logs and rocks and often offered help to the more squeamish girls on the bug safari.
"Can you scoop a bug for me?" asked Ava Ormond, 5. "I am not used to bugs."
Noah Pace, 8, captured a daddy longlegs for 5-year-old Olivia Harding and helped soothe her frayed nerves. She had just trekked through a spider web.
"Don't worry," Noah said. "These guys are your friends. They are not bad guys."
Such sentiments show the center's environmental programs are taking root, staffers said.
"Our primary mission is education, research and monitoring," Schoen said.
The center's camp season, which runs through the second week of August, began last week with crafts and nature activities for the younger set and continues this week with aquatic adventures for older children. Then, Echo Camp teaches tips on survival in the wild, and Science Camp offers young researchers a chance to delve into a thriving ecosystem.
Park naturalist Keith Endsley drew the young children into a lesson on plants with his mysterious brown bag of science. Brady cautiously reached in, hoping "there is something alive in here." What he found were "spiky things" from a sweet gum tree that he promptly stuck to another camper's hat.
"They hitch rides on different things so they can go somewhere else and start a new life," Brady said.
Endsley pulled a milky white pod from the bag and asked who could identify it.
"Maybe it came from a taco tree," said Nathan Stiemly, 4.
Each session features classroom and outdoor time at the creek shores or along the heavily wooded trails. The older children take canoe or kayak rides.
Many of the Small Wanderers said they frequently visit the center and could help familiarize others with the surroundings. As they first set off for the creek, 6-year-old Sammy Mahmoud alerted his campmates. "There is a big river down there," he said.
On the way to the river, the children encountered a praying mantis, several tiny toads and a spider with an egg sack.
"She has babies inside the sack, and she wants them to hatch," said Zoey Rubinoff, who turned "officially 6" on her birthday last week.
While searching for bugs, several campers encountered a small black snake and tried to snare it.
"I'll go warn the others," Noah shouted, but the critter quickly escaped any child's grasp.
"It got away under a huge rock," said Will, who had already captured a red ant and a beetle.
Not to worry, said George Stiemly, 6, "There are a million and seven things here to look at."
Sandy Pace, mother of Noah and 6-year-old Nathan, said her sons are repeat campers who look forward to their summer camp experience.
"They love it here," she said. "It encourages them to be interested in nature, and it fosters their curiosity. They may be scientists some day."