When I was in the fifth grade in California, I went with the rest of my class to a week-long, sleep-away science camp/outdoor school called Walden West; it was adjacent to and loosely affiliated with the local Sanborn County Park. This was one of the most exciting things about being a fifth grader at my elementary school—the opportunity to trade in a week of sitting in the classroom for five glorious days of traipsing through the redwood forest, making new friends and learning about the natural world. For many of us, it was our first time away from our parents for such an extended period of time, so the teachers and Walden West staff placed great emphasis on bonding with other students and just getting us out into the forest, to distract us from thinking about being away from home for so long.
While I was there, I had the time of my life. We were broken into small groups, and went out on the trails with a field instructor (Walden West staff) and a couple of counselors, to do some outside, hands-on nature learning. We were taught all kinds of things about the local plant and animal life as well as helpful life tips, including important tidbits that I still use today, such as how to discern between poison oak and blackberry, and how to eat an apple in such a way as not to leave the core. We even had competitions at each meal to see which cabin would produce the least amount of waste. It happened to be raining the week I stayed there, and while that certainly put a damper on some things (i.e. requiring an indoor modification of the campfire activity), it was still quite fun to be out on the trail all day in the wet and mud and wildlife. So much fun, in fact, that even though many of us arrived with some trepidation related to being away for so long, I would be willing to bet that almost all of us had completely forgotten that nervousness when it came time to leave just five days later. I can’t remember for sure, but I may have even shed a tear or two on the school bus as we left because I had had such a wonderful experience.
That summer, and for each subsequent summer until college, I would go back to Walden West for at least a week or two for their summer day camp. There was still a hiking/nature learning component, but it was only for a couple hours in the morning, with the afternoon reserved for arts/crafts, games, and activities. Even though the experience was totally different as a summer camper, I just couldn’t keep myself away. I came to love every aspect of the camp and the surrounding park, hiking the trail up to the chaparral, walking down to the creek just to relax, or even hanging around the camp’s picnic shelter in the shade. Once I outgrew the summer day camp, I took one summer participating in their Leaders in Training program, so that I could continue to return, this time as a counselor. As a counselor, I hoped to instill in the children I encountered my love for the camp and park, and do my best to encourage them to stay connected with it. For me, that’s what this place Walden West is all about: it’s a way to get the youth excited about being in nature, in the hopes that they will grow up to inspire the next generation to go out in and care for the natural world. When it comes down to it, it’s all about education. Education can be fun, as was demonstrated to me in my week away at science camp when I was ten years old, and it is vital that it remain so, so that children want to partake in the wondrous experience that is spending time out on the trails. There is abundant knowledge to be had out in nature—sometimes all it takes is the right motivation to go and find it. For me, that motivation came through Walden West Science Camp and Outdoor School, which is why it will always hold a special place in my heart.
–Chris, In My Backyard intern