Field (Camp) Notes

This panoramic photograph of the Keffer Oak can't quite capture the massive height and girth of the tree.  Appalachian Trail hikers often use this ancient white oak (Quercus alba) as a waypoint to meet friends who live in the southwest Virginia area.

This panoramic photograph of the Keffer Oak can’t quite capture the massive height and girth of the tree. Appalachian Trail hikers often use this ancient white oak (Quercus alba) as a way point at which to meet friends who live in the southwest Virginia area.

For the past three summers I have been overjoyed to help teach two weeks of the SEEDS – Blacksburg Nature Center summer field camps, which I would modestly, yet accurately, describe as the Best Camp Ever.

By The Numbers

Ten kids ages seven to nine, two teachers, two dogs, and one 12-passenger dually van, “Big Bertha”, ride out into the local wilds every day for a week, spending 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. hiking, wading, swimming, catching, identifying and enjoying nature to the fullest.

This year the record for most species (plant, animal, and even fossil) identified was 104.  104!  (The other camp “only” got 87.) Sure, there were thousands more that we could have looked up, but this wasn’t a BioBlitz, these identifications came from the things kids noticed that they wanted to look up.

Lessons Abound All Around

There is so much to be learned and taught in nature, but the teaching often requires only the direction of attention toward something that Mama Nature will perfectly illustrate and channel into the child’s brain through some fantastic magic by which we all gain a “sense” of things.  These are a few that I can put into words:

    1. Look closely at this chicory flower (Cichorium intybus) and you'll see a bright yellow crab spider (Misumena vatia) waiting to catch some pollinator prey.

      Look closely at this chicory flower (Cichorium intybus) and you’ll see a bright yellow crab spider (Misumena vatia) waiting to catch some pollinator prey.

      Look!  No, really look. – Observation skills are paramount in nature.  Since humans are such visual creatures, we practice looking closely and noticing detail, whether it’s an edge, a texture, a color, the placement of a fin, the shape of a wing, the pattern of scales, or the number of legs.  When you look closely, the opportunity to be amazed grows by orders of magnitude.
    2. Are you listening? (And smelling, and feeling, and tasting?) – We use all five senses to observe nature, knowing not just by the look of things, but, for instance, black birch trees by the spicy wintergreen smell of a snapped twig, an Eastern Towhee by it’s “Drink your tea-ee-ee-ee-ee” song, or the presence of microscopic diatoms by the extreme slipperiness of the rocks in the creek.
      If you were to accidentally brush up against poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) or stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), the juices from the stem of this orange jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) would reduce the skin irritation.

      If you were to accidentally brush up against poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) or stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), the juices from the stem of this orange jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) would reduce the skin irritation.

      Sometimes we have to refrain from using some senses, such as learning not to touch poison ivy and never eating an unidentified mushroom or plant.
    3. Nature does not want to hurt you.  – Everything in nature is just trying to go about its life, preferably without getting eaten too soon to create the next generation.  We are the big, clumsy, scary ones that often cause a fight-or-flight reaction in animals.  Don’t want to get stung?  Don’t step on or poke the bee.  Be careful where you put your hands and feet; look first.  We are not afraid in nature, we are aware.  We can be curious and cautious at the same time.  For instance, we learned that bright colors (red, orange, yellow, and black among the insects) and patterns (the white and black of a skunk) in nature are often warning signs to predators:  “Try to eat me and you’ll be sorry!”
    4. This bracket  or "shelf" fungus could be Artist's Fungus (Ganoderma applanatum) or Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor).  I didn't look closely enough to tell for sure because we were on the hunt for orb weaving spiders!

      How beautiful is this?!  This gorgeous bracket or “shelf” fungus could be Artist’s Fungus (Ganoderma applanatum) or Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor). I didn’t look closely enough to tell for sure because we were on the hunt for orb weaving spiders!

      Superlatives are appropriate. – Nature is awesome.  Recognizing that fact, out loud, inspires greater learning about and deeper respect for nature.  One of the very few rules of the camp was “If you find something cool, show Ms. Dee!”  The kids would shout “Rule 4!” and I would come straight over to see whatever insect they’d caught or wildflower they found or the shocking size of the crayfish in the net.  Nomatter how many times I may have observed that species before, there’s always something new to notice, something cool/neat/awesome/interesting/intriguing/fantastic/amazing/incredible to make note of and discuss.
Years ago a small seed found a safe niche on an outcrop of sedimentary rock above Craig Creek.  Catching the rain, finding nutrient from fallen leaves of larger trees, and hanging on with many strong roots, that seed has made its life and is now a small tree.

Years ago a small seed found a safe niche on an outcrop of sedimentary rock high above Craig Creek. Catching the rain, finding nutrient from decaying fallen leaves of larger trees, and hanging on with many strong roots, that seed has made its life and is now a small tree.

  1. Nature is everywhere. – Whatever we learn out in the “wilderness” areas also applies in our back yards, school yards, driveways, parking lots, towns, and farms.  Once the sense of nature gets inside you, it’s a lasting framework for understanding that never fails.

I could go on and on (and on and on) about the student-directed learning opportunities in nature, and chances are that throughout the life of this blog, I will.  For now, though, I’d rather take the time to direct you to some of the great places we went  – check out the links below:

Not-So-Dismal Falls

About an hour west of Blacksburg in the Jefferson National Forest in Giles County, the Falls of Dismal Creek make the perfect place to splash and picnic.

I was lucky enough to get to spend the afternoon there on Wednesday, with 10 kiddos participating in SEEDS Field Camp.

The Falls of Dismal trail is a scramble downhill; just a tenth of a mile brings you from the roadside parking to the creek.  There are plenty of semi-dry boulders to sit on and creek access is easy as long as you and your kiddos are careful of slippery spots.

The falls are about 15 feet high, made of many stepped ledges of bedrock.  The falls can be climbed even by the elementary school set (with an adult) if the water flow is low.  Several campers made it to the top with my camp co-teacher helping them along the way.

Reaching the top is far from the highlight of a visit, though, as there are fish, crawfish, and salamanders to be caught, mushrooms to be found, butterflies to be watched, and cold water bathtub-style swimming to be enjoyed.

(Just don’t overtire yourself.  What was a downhill scramble is a short-but-painful slog on the way back up.)

Here are some pictures from our recent Dismal Falls visit:

The Falls of Dismal are just beautiful.  The "dismal" moniker comes from the settlers' pessimistic judgement of the area's rough, wild country, short growing season, and poor soils (shale bedrock).

The Falls of Dismal are just beautiful. The “dismal” moniker comes from the settlers’ pessimistic judgement of the area’s rough, wild country, short growing season, and poor soils (shale bedrock).

This is the view downstream from the falls.  Dismal Creek runs clear and cold.  The water appears brown because the underlying rocks are brown.  The creek is not muddy or cloudy.  Well, at least not unless you have 10 kids playing in it!  (And even then, there's little silt to kick up.)

This is the view downstream from the falls. Dismal Creek runs clear and cold. The water appears brown because the underlying rocks are brown. The creek is not muddy or cloudy. Well, at least not unless you have 10 kids playing in it! (And even then, there’s little silt to kick up.)

This small creek fish is a blacknose dace (Rhynicthus atratulis) that was captured with a small, rectangular neck of the variety usually used in fishtanks.

This small creek fish is a blacknose dace (Rhynicthus atratulus) that was captured with a small, rectangular net of the variety usually used in fish tanks.  It is swimming in our collection basin, a rectangular bucket of the variety usually seen containing dirty dishes.

This is a dusky salamander (Desmognathus fuscus) also captured with a small fish net.  It is eager to crawl out of the observation basin.  The basins we use for observation are always kept in shade and at the temperature of the stream to maintain the high dissolved oxygen levels in the water (so as not to stress out the stream creatures more than necessary).  Still, freedom is better.

This is a dusky salamander (Desmognathus fuscus) also captured with a small fish net. It is eager to crawl out of the observation basin. The basins we use for observation are always kept in shade and at the temperature of the stream to maintain the high dissolved oxygen levels in the water (so as not to stress out the stream creatures more than necessary). Still, freedom is better.

We weren't the only ones doing some fishing in the creek!  This is a fishing spider (Dolomedes spp.) staking out a good crack between rocks.  About as big as my hand, fishing spiders are sometimes described as "big, not bad".  Found near water, they prey on aquatic insects, tiny minnows (the kind seen in the observation bucket with the salamander) and other minuscule stream dwellers.  They don't frighten me, but I'm not dumb enough to poke them, either.

We weren’t the only ones doing some fishing in the creek! This is a fishing spider (Dolomedes spp.) staking out a good crack between rocks. About as big as my hand, fishing spiders are sometimes described as “big, not bad”. Found near water, they prey on aquatic insects, tiny minnows (the kind seen in the observation bucket with the salamander) and other minuscule stream dwellers. They don’t frighten me, but I’m not dumb enough to poke them, either.