Pemi’s Nature Program
If longtime Nature Head (from 1927-1969) Clarence Dike were to walk into the Nature Lodge today, he would find many things familiar and many things that were not. Over the years, I have written about novel ways in which we’ve expanded the program. Here, however, I want to highlight some of the ways in which we’ve updated and enhanced traditional occupations and activities to keep campers of all ages engaged, from beginner to advanced levels.
Some Things Old
Some things just don’t change. I love this sequence of photos that shows the “history” of butterfly nets here at Pemi. We make our own, using a length of mosquito netting, heavy duty cotton thread, a hoop fashioned from a wire hanger, and a stick cut from our woods.
The first picture (circa 1940’s?) shows Clarence Dike himself helping a camper; the second, 1972, a camper with Rob Grabill—who prior to becoming director was in instructor in the Nature Program; and the third, a 2015 crew (with staff member Sara Crayton at the wheel and “bug instructors” Matt Kanovsky and Chase Gagne), headed out to a field for collecting using their homemade nets.
Clarence would have recognized the display for the “What-is-it?” contest, too, though its “home” in the Nature Lodge has been relocated. Each day a new “natural” item is put out for campers and staff to identify. The camper in each division (and the staff member) with the highest score for the summer gets one of our specially created nature awards (another holdover from the Clarence Dike era). The “new” innovation this year is that, after 45 years of running the contest, I have ceded oversight to Associate Head of Nature Programs Deb Kure. She has brought her enthusiasm and salesmanship to it and participation has never been higher.
Some Things Old (but updated)
Wild Foods has long been one of the most popular activities at Pemi. We have been cooking and eating milkweed shoots, flowers, and pods for years. We have also had a “native American garden” for 5 years now in which we attempt to grow varieties of the “three sisters” (corn, beans, squash) that closely resemble those used by the Native Americans 600 years ago. Last year was the first in which we had any kind of a corn crop. So this year, for the first time, we shelled and ground it then used it to make pancakes with wild blackberries (also collected here). Served with some of Alum Bob Zock’s dark, flavorful maple syrup, they were a real hit.
Along with bringing back Bush Lore, we also updated our “Animal Signs and Homes” occupation. Finding an old bear den way up in the woods several years ago inspired this activity. The occupation is designed for all ages and includes not only learning about animal homes and shelters but also identifying such signs as territorial marks, feeding signs, and of course “scat,” the polite name for “poop.” This last, of course, provides all kinds of information about what the animal was eating and how it ate it.
Some Things Old (but augmented)
“Chemical” (film) photography dates back to the mid-1800s. We’ve had a darkroom at Pemi since before the digital era. In 2015, under the guidance of visiting professional Andy Bale and experienced darkroom enthusiasts Erik Wiedemann and Mark Welsh, we had an explosion of interest. There is something special about not knowing what your photograph will look like until it is slowly revealed in the developing tank under the red “safe light.” Pemi supplies the film, the cameras, and the darkroom supplies. Of course, we do digital photography too and our new special nature/photo trips (see below) have lead to some spectacular photographs.
“Weird Science” has long been a staple for Juniors. Here we introduce the boys to the wonders of collapsing cans (vacuum), strange material behavior (Oobleck-corn starch and water), exploding balloons (expanding air), and much more. We use old-time physics demonstrations al la the old “Mr. Wizard” (am I really dating myself?). This past summer, under the guidance of engineer-in-training Sam Papel and future geneticist Thom Kelly, we expanded “Weird Science” to older campers. Highlights included giant soap bubbles (surface tension) and the infamous “egg-drop,” an engineering school staple. For this, the boys had to design a protective enclosure for a raw egg (using natural materials found in the woods) that would keep it intact when it was dropped off the porch of U4 onto the road. By the way, every boy succeeded in protecting his egg.
I have led caving trips at Pemi for over 30 years. In most summers we take a beginning trip that includes three caves and an advanced trip that includes two very challenging (physically and mentally) caves: Knox and Gage. This year was no different. However, for the first time in many, many years, my sister, Emily Davis, a world-class caver (never, please, “spelunker”) led the trips. Sam Papel, 2015’s counselor of J1 who’d experienced all the trips when he was a camper, assisted. Emily challenged the boys, as usual, with the “Gun Barrel” in Knox Cave, which is 50 feet long and about 1.5 feet in diameter. This year, she also offered to take them through the “Lake Room” in Gage to view some spectacular “rimstone dams.’ Traveling to the dams meant going for a swim in the lake. Fortunately, Sam Papel is a lifeguard so this was possible. However, it is not easy. The water temperature is 46° F and you must actually swim (in your caving gear) for about 25 feet. The four boys who did this agreed that it was well worth the effort.
Some Things Old (but revamped)
When Nuwi Somp (from Papua New Guinea, father to campers Sompy and Brandon) was here in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, he led a popular occupation called “bush lore” in which he taught skills learned in the jungles of his homeland, but adapted to our New England habitat. “Bush lore” goes way back here in North America. Obviously the Native Americans needed these skills and when many New England summer camps were founded, in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, teaching them was part of their mission. So, we brought bush lore back this summer focusing on classic outdoor skills such as fire making, way finding, and shelter building. The week’s activity culminated with participating campers and their instructor building individual shelters in the woods and spending the night in it. We taught this occupation twice during the summer and the boys who did it during week 3 had the additional challenge of rain overnight. I’m pleased to report that most stayed dry and comfortable.
Some Things New
We had some innovations this year also. To my mind, the most important of these were the combined nature/photography trips. Some of these went to familiar nature trip destinations such as Quincy Bog in nearby Rumney or Sculptured Rocks. Others went to new spots such as Sabbaday Falls (along the Kancamagus Highway) and to property owned by the Spiess family (who generously granted us permission to visit several times) in Piermont, NH. We have nicknamed this location “The 200” as it is about 200 acres in size. It provided locations both for collecting butterflies and for photography.
Sabbaday Falls is interesting geologically. It formed when faulting exposed a basalt dike, which then eroded quickly forming a deep gorge with waterfalls. There are also subsidiary waterfalls leading into the gorge. It provided both a wonderful setting to talk about White Mountain geology and to work on a variety of photographic techniques. Of course, it also provided a perfect location for just contemplating the beauty of nature.
The Role of Innovation
Pemi’s Nature Program celebrated its 90th anniversary this year, 2015. Since 1926, our approach has been science-based with emphasis on collecting and field observation. Early traditions, such as shooting birds to get their wings for display, are rightfully gone. Changes such as those outlined here have kept Pemi’s program vital and up-to-date. We have made it even more science-based, as rigorous, perhaps, as any high-level middle or high school program. Yet it is still rooted in outdoor observation of nature, something that you cannot get in a classroom, whatever the level of digital effects. Already, we are thinking of ways that we can update, revamp, or augment our existing activites and of new activities that we can introduce. Stay tuned.
~ Larry Davis