I took a mini-vacation up to Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center to visit Christine this past weekend. She’s been working there for awhile as a camp counselor, and it was great to see her in action teaching some little Pennsylvanian kids about nature. I wasn’t able to spend much time with her during her workday, of course (Shaver’s Creek is part of the Penn State university extension office, and Penn State has recently had some sort of problem with adults spending time with children they weren’t supposed to be around, I’ve heard), but I enjoyed a dozen kilometers of hiking around the many trails surrounding the center.

When she picked me up from the airport, I was impressed at a distance with the rolling green hills. Christine told me she’d never seen so many trees in one place before. I haven’t been to Pennsylvania since I was a little boy (I think I was probably most impressed with the Hershey area at that stage in my life) but my appreciation for camping and hiking has obviously increased over the years and this felt like a return to the Appalachian mountains that I saw last fall with my fellow Wadi-hiking American friends. The weather here was cooler and breezier compared with the blasting, sauna-like heat that had struck Madison for the past week. As Christine wasn’t feeling very well, I told her it was a lucky thing she was here in more temperate climes, instead of baking with her fellow Wisconsinites.

Perhaps it’s been hot enough in Wisconsin to kill off most of the biting insects (or standing water pools are evaporating so quickly that mosquito eggs die before hatching) but not so was the case in the lovely hills of Pennsylvania. After Christine and I drove from her cabin to her workplace and she freed me to wander about and amuse myself, I quickly found myself wishing I’d put on more bug spray than the cursory casual layer I’d applied to my bare arms and legs. I must have looked quite the site for the few hikers I came across in the forests, muttering to myself and whacking my head with my hands. I was wearing a Wisconsin Badgers t-shirt, though, so at least the locals were able to write me off as a foreigner.

"hello sir. Yes, I am a barred owl, as the sign says. However, I believe that cutout may be an exaggeration of my size."

About an hour after we arrived, I heard the happy shouts and cavorting sounds of kids enjoying nature. Before arriving, I had thought that was a wildlife retreat for inner-city “potentially troubled” kids to interact with nature in ways that they couldn’t in Pittsburgh or Philadelphia or something, but look down from a trailhead towards the open field in front of the nature center showed that these kids were the exact opposite; there appeared to be only one or two minorities out of a hundred. Judging from the large red text currently on their website as of July 2012, it’s quite popular with the locals – every single camp is booked solid with waitlists extending into next year.

Some of the trails I wandered on alone were quite overgrown, almost no more than a deer trail or less, and I tried to avoid anything that looked too suspiciously like poison ivy (now, a week later, it seems I was successful) and although I didn’t see any wildlife larger than a ground squirrel, the forest’s tinier wildlife gave me a wispy, clinging hug as I blundered headlong through at least a dozen spider web strands stretched across the trail. Nothing says that you’re the first person of the day on a trail than eating spider webs for an hour.

This little guy was lucky his magnificent web was so eye catching that I didn't walk right through it

After stumbling out of the woods onto the road that led to the center, I wandered back, making myself as visible as possible on the side of the road so as  not to be picked off by an SUV-driving soccer mom, departing after dropping off her camping youth. I stopped by the center’s gift shop and briefly enjoyed the air conditioning, but also picked up a massive slab of locally-made garlic bread for $5 that I was told is made daily by a young guy who has a camp counselor as a housemate.

A few more hours of alternating hiking the numerous trails, visiting the raptor cages to watch the birds watch me back, and relaxing, and the campers’ parents were starting to arrive for the final activities of the final day of the weeklong camp. There was ice cream (of which I sampled a few cones at Christine’s urging) and even a show by the counselors and campers for the parents and random ice cream eating strangers. Introductions of the counselors were made, skits from each camper group, and lots of good-natured ribbing of the counselors and youthful camp administrators occurred.

Christine tells the campers how great it was to work with them for the past week

As the afternoon darkened into evening, Christine’s boss, a friendly looking young bearded fellow who looked like he possibly had been born in flannel and jeans, led us to the rear of the camp and taught us all about the bats that used to spread out from the bat boxes they had installed on the back of the raptor cages. “I’ll bet some of you have been bitten by a lot of insects today.” I nodded ruefully. “There’s a terrible disease that has ravaged our bat population the past couple years. You’d used to see them darting all over the place at this time of day. These days, you’re lucky if you see one.” He then turned the campers, parents, and random visitor over to the counselors again, who were to lead us through the trails at twilight for some final activities.

Christine and her colleague, Cedar (Christine’s camp name was Vireo, after the bird) took our little gang through the same trails I had traversed 12 hours earlier, but with the mournful woooorrrp of bullfrogs and chirping crickets around us, and of course the ever-present dotting of fireflies, it seemed very different. The kids were taught wildlife-centric information about how ear shape changes how quickly animals can hear sounds and react to them, and Christine taught the mesmerized group about her Great *7 Grandfather, who was coming to America on an immigrant ship, only to be waylaid by pirates who under duress taught the sailors and immigrants that by keeping one eye covered at all times, they were able to adjust to the dark of a ship’s lower decks faster than anyone else and that’s how they were so successful at pirating. Of course, she had us all try it out by having us stare into a candle with one eye covered as she told her story, then to uncover it and then look into the woods. The kids were mesmerized, and so was I; breathlessly asking her why she’d never told me the amazing history of her pirate-defeating immigrant grandfather. She merely winked and chuckled.

The night was rounded off with Cedar and Christine team-telling the story of a meteorite that crash-landed in the dried-out lake bed behind the camp, and the strange crackling rocks that the two of them (being, of course, the first on the scene) found and subsequently popped into their mouths. “And we’ve got some right here to share with you all!” finished Cedar dramatically. “Find a partner, and watch what happens when they chew on a piece of the rock!” Lo and behold, glowing sparks seemed to appear in the gloom all around us as the kids discovered the magic of sparking mint Lifesavers.

Christine and I headed back to her cabin, but most of the campers and their families had elected to spend the night at the camp – Friday night is the only time during the 5-day summer camp that campers actually “camp.”  Several of Christine’s charges embraced her, weeping openly as they said goodbye to their beloved Vireo, with promises to her that they would be back next year “to camp for 2 whole weeks, I can’t wait!” As she started up her car and we rumbled away, I looked back towards the open lawn where all the tents were set up. For a moment, it seemed like the little lights of their lamps and flashlights were indistinguishable from the dancing fireflies.