Last spring, the Town of Ithaca Conservation Board honored our camp program with the Richard B. Fischer Environmental Conservation Award, in recognition of our thirtieth anniversary in offering conservation and environmental education programming to area youths. Having personally worked with the camp program over the last eight summers, I am continually humbled to be playing a part in the mission for environmental awareness that we have adhered to as an organization since our establishment in 1975. The founding of our camp program in 1986 only furthered this integrity with the hopes of providing an organic and impactful experience that could lead to significant change in the future. Recent events within our local and national communities have made us all too aware that the critical era we sought to influence may already be upon us. While we will certainly face new challenges ahead, it is with renewed vigor that the mission of the Cayuga Nature Center, and its service to the youth of our area through the summer camp program, is perhaps just as, if not more so, relevant than it was at its founding.
Changing our perspective of the natural world begins with immersion. This is perhaps best witnessed in our Preschool Naturalist program, where participants ages 3 to 5 are encouraged to embrace the sights, sounds, and smells of the outdoors, until they become as familiar as those within their homes. The unbridled joy that illuminates the faces of these young campers at first hearing the startled call of a green frog leaping into a pond, or the feel of an earthworm wriggling in their hands as they explore the Earth below them, is a hopeful indicator that this early exposure will keep their natural curiosity hungry to explore more.
As our campers graduate into our Explorer Camp, they continue to curate this deepening bond as they begin to learn the names and habits of the flora and fauna around them. As in their schools, where learning the names of their classmates can develop into friendships, the skill of identification brings into their perspective a sense of camaraderie and appreciation of our native plants and animals. Our campers uptake a new sense of responsibility as environmental stewards, as they confidently point out a seemingly benign wildflower, and explain that as it takes seven years to bloom – it is not a flower worth picking.
Our older campers in our Explorer Camp, as well as our specialty camps, begin to tackle more complex issues as they come of age with the forest around them. They begin to grasp the complexity of interactions between organisms of the ecosystems they observe. The delicacy of our natural systems, and our individual ability to promote environmental health, empowers these campers to tackle issues and take action through invasive species control or habitat management projects they can contribute to on-site. As well-mannered guests of the forest, these campers leave behind a natural setting better than as they found it. This type of hands–on conservation promotes a beneficial human impact, and is vital to the continued prosperity of our second growth forests.
Last summer, our camp tackled a new challenge alongside the local community. Lack of proper snowmelt coupled with below average rainfall brought a historic drought to our area. I am sure that for many of us, the image of Taughannock Falls running dry will not soon be forgotten. While the impact of this was much more serious than a missed photo opportunity, it allowed our staff to engage in meaningful conversation and new programming with our campers about water conservation methods. Similarly, our Winter Camp, held in February this year, enjoyed a balmy average of 67 degrees, and was the first year on record our sledding hill went unused.
While we cannot predict what types of continued extremes our area may experience, the Cayuga Nature Center, as a public educational venue focusing on the impact of environmental issues such as climate change, will continue to pursue opportunities to integrate discussion on this increasingly relevant topic. With such a close connection to nature, our campers are ever vigilant to these changes, and considering their passion and fervor for the natural world, it is with pride that we provide them a complete perspective that looks at our environment now, our environment in the future, and avenues for all ages to engage in environmental aid.
Environmental Education Manager and Camp Director