Outings always memorable

HIGHGATE — Mucking around in a pond, catching frogs, bugs and turtles, racing homemade boats and sucking on slices of watermelon – isn’t that every kid’s dream?

For the dozen or so children at the Highgate Library Nature Camp this week, it was a reality. Anyone pulling into the Highgate Park and Ride on Wednesday just had to round the tall grass and head towards Fireman’s Pond to see young boys and girls dashing about in their bathing suits with nets, buckets, muddy feet and lots of enthusiasm.

“Mr. K., I caught a dragonfly!” shouted one excited camper participating in the day’s BugWorks session, a self-explanatory activity.

Mr. K. – or local nature educator Kurt Valenta – wandered over, magnifying box in hand, to check out the catch. The pale, long-bodied and long-winged insect, he said, was actually a damselfly. Holding it up for the crowding campers to see, Valenta pointed to the tail and explained how eggs are laid on the back of it and then dipped into the water to hatch.

“Every time it dips [the tail], an egg falls into the water,” he said.

Valenta examined other aspects of the damselfly, including its six legs and large eyes. “That tells me it’s a predator,” he said of the eyes. “It hunts on the fly.”

Valenta then left his campers to it. “You guys are really good hunters,” he said as he looked into one bucket of water that was swimming with insects, tadpoles and other critters. He reminded everyone to stick to netting the pond’s bottom dwellers, the benthic macro invertebrates.

One such critter, an alarmingly large water spider, captured Valenta’s and the campers’ attention. Valenta explained the spider’s fuzzy hair, which acts as a net for the air it needs underwater.

“It puts the air bubble in there and uses it to breath,” he said.

Another camper soon brought Valenta another rather big insect, a giant waterbug. He explained that its back, which was covered with tiny globes, was carrying eggs a female had placed there.

“The poor male waterbug can’t do anything about it,” Valenta said.

In addition to wrangling the pond’s wildest insects Wednesday morning, Valenta had his campers try out some boats made the day before from Japanese knotweed – which they picked – and yarn. Pirate flags were an unrequired but popular addition.

“[The boats give] us an opportunity to talk about invasives and do some design,” Valenta said.

Watermelon was handed out mid-morning, and Valenta’s standard poodle, Bailey, was on hand for petting. Campers were free to choose what they wanted until lunchtime. This liberty to explore and learn by experiencing nature, said Valenta, is what his camps – which are offered through sponsoring organizations, such as local libraries – are all about.

“It’s not a structured thing,” he said. “I create an interest and all of a sudden they’re interacting with me and among themselves.”

Valenta said he simply chooses a theme for the four-hour camp session each day, and then the kids – usually ages five to 13 – help the day take on a life of its own.

“If kids were more exposed to the outside, they’d get a real appreciation for what they have out there – [even] the muck,” he said. “They definitely remember and retain this stuff.”

That’s pretty clear from being around Valenta’s campers. Bella Bigelow, 9, remembered going out with Valenta to a river with a large waterfall. “We raced snails,” she said. “It was fun.”

Michaela Gallup, 7, who found a second, blue, damselfly Wednesday morning, said she enjoyed Valenta’s camp, too.

“It’s really fun,” she said. “I’m learning a lot from Mr. K. and I’m learning a lot of animals.

Bigelow added, “I like seeing all these cool bugs.”

Valenta has been offering his camps since 2003, and has a number of programs available year-round. To learn more, visit his website: http://www.exordium-adventure.com.