For many adults, the start of summer means rolling down the windows during the drive to the office and looking out the window a little more longingly while we’re there. So when I was offered a chance to spend a Friday with the Chesapeake Conservation Corps at Arlington Echo, an Outdoor Education Center that sees every fourth grader in the county each year, for one of their “All Hands on Deck” events I accepted immediately. Expecting nothing more than a few hours in the sun and maybe a decent lunch, I was completely unprepared for the experience I received.
As I arrived, I caught glimpses of pavilions and picnic tables tucked behind trees, several inviting trails branched off of the main road, and a cloud of butterflies and bumblebees hovered over the flower gardens that surround every building and field. Having not been to an outdoor education center since I was about 12, I was afraid that I would no longer enjoy an entire day of environmental education geared towards a pre-teen age group. While I parked my car and walked towards my Corps group I couldn’t help feeling like I was walking into a new elementary school, worried that the other kids would make fun of my shoes. But my fears evaporated instantly under the infectious smile of Anna, our group’s camp guide, as she led us towards the low ropes course. Minutes later I was being passed through a gigantic spider web, lifted over a 12 foot wall to escape the “zombie apocalypse,” and testing the limits of my balancing skills on “Don’t rock the boat.”
Feeling much more comfortable with my new friends and our teamwork potential, we met up with the rest of the Corps members and Echo staff for lunch. Before we could eat however, we had to learn the rules of Wheel of Echo! , a game after lunch where a lucky 4th grader (usually) gets to show off their ecology chops by answering a random nature question. Despite my personal, grouchy aversion to cheesy audience participation, I soon found myself joining the rest of the dining hall in enthusiastically shouting “SPIN THAT SQUIRREL!” and straining to see what category it landed on. However, lunch wasn’t over until after the traditional weighing of any leftover food waste. Thankfully our group of career environmentalists was able to finish our veggies, earning us a coveted spot on the food waste wall of fame.
After a short digestion break, the Conservation Corps split into two groups and prepared for an afternoon hike/canoe through the Severn Run natural area. Not satisfied that we were soaking in all that Arlington Echo had to offer the staff challenged us to see which group could spot the most plant and animal species before we left later that day. So with our eyes and ears peeled looking for types of life we began paddling up the Severn Run. Focused mostly on not getting stuck in the shallows, and then of course on having to get ourselves un-stuck, we were only able to identify six different types of birds including a great blue heron, a kingfisher, and even a bald eagle. The real fun began once we met up with the other group and our mystical forest guide Sean.
Leading us through stands of chestnut oak and Virginia pine, pointing out lady slipper orchids and wild cherries, rainbow tie-dye socks poking out of the tops of his boots, Sean McGuinn could only be described as the cool counselor in every movie about summer camp. As he led down the trail leaking tidbits of information like “Jewelweed can help counteract poison ivy,” I was reminded of my childhood camp experiences just like when I was in 4th grade and looked up to older kids working at Arlington Echo and decided that’s what I want to be when I grow up.
It wasn’t until we had finished the hike and I sat under a red cedar rehydrating that I realized how much fun the entire Arlington Echo experience had been. Not only was the location right on the Severn River beautiful, you could tell the staff truly cared about their program and wanted every visitor to leave with a newfound passion for supporting local habitat. On top of Arlington Echo itself, I was blown away by the Chesapeake Conservation Corps members: their enthusiasm for environmental stewardship, and the incredible projects they are working on outside of this event. Somehow it made even my own healthy environmental passions and career goals feel shallow. The worst part of the day was driving away and realizing that I had to go to work on Monday and there are kids that are going to get to go there every day of the week this summer.
Will Cameron is an intern at Chesapeake Bay Trust and a senior at John Hopkins University.