Ryan Coulon holds a baby lobster found while exploring tide pools at Potts Point Preserve during Nature Day Camp this summer. (JULIA MCLEOD PHOTO)
BY JULIA MCLEOD, OUTREACH DIRECTOR, HARPSWELL HERITAGE LAND TRUST
Harpswell Heritage Land Trust’s Nature Day Camp ran uninterrupted for 22 years, until COVID-19 struck and the land trust made the difficult decision to cancel its camps in 2020. When the camp returned in 2021, it was to very high demand from families for outdoor fun and normalcy.
The 2021 camp season was full of joy and enthusiasm for nature, friendship and exploration. Campers aged 3-12 spent their days wading in the water, catching critters in tide pools, making new friends, creating art, playing games and much more.
Camp happens at a different location every day, so campers have the opportunity to experience Harpswell’s meadows, tide pools, mud flats and forests. Seasoned educators introduced activities and games, guided children through discovery of nature and stepped back to allow friendships and imagination to flourish.
A total of 171 children and five junior counselors participated in Nature Day Camp in 2021. Twelve weeklong sessions were offered in July and August — six for preschool-age and six for elementary school-age children. New and returning campers mixed, exploring Harpswell’s shoreline, fields and forests.
“Amelia’s happiest self easily emerges when we combine time outside and time with friends. As she described her favorite camp game, ‘drip, drip, drop,’ and advised me how best to move across the mud flats without getting stuck, I knew Harpswell Nature Day Camp had scratched her itch,” said camp parent and Harpswell resident Jenny Bolton. “Especially in a year saturated with anxiety and social isolation, a fun, safe time in the mud with friends was exactly what she needed. Thanks for inviting our happy girl to come out and play!”
Camp registration, as usual, opened in March of this year on a first-come, first-served basis. But the hundreds of parents and grandparents rushing to fill out the online registration within the first few minutes crashed the HHLT website. Emails flooded in. It became clear how much camp meant to families, this year in particular. It was an experience that families craved — togetherness, fun and normalcy after a school year of uncertainty and disruption.
The website crash led the nonprofit land trust to rethink camp, to expand its offerings from eight to 12 sessions and to switch to a lottery system for registration. Even with the expansion, the demand for spots outweighed supply and a waiting list queued up immediately. In the end, the waiting list grew to include 123 children, 35 of whom were ultimately able to attend.
To make camp safe for campers and staff this summer, HHLT consulted with local pediatrician Dr. Deb Hagler to develop a COVID-19 policy for camp. Families were responsible for daily symptom checks and campers were required to get tested for COVID-19 if they exhibited symptoms. Campers were not required to wear masks, as the camp is entirely outdoors. During 12 sessions of camp, there wasn’t a single positive case or exposure to COVID-19.
Camp families came away from the summer enthusiastic about the experience and looking forward to next year.
“We were so grateful to have the kids return to nature camp this summer. We live in Harpswell and love having a local camp that provides an experience in the special areas the town has to offer,” said camp parent Ashley Coulon. “This was our third year attending the camp and the first when all three of our kiddos were able to participate. Highlights from the year for our kids were exploring the seashore and seeing a baby lobster and other sea creatures. We look forward to next year!”
Another parent wrote: “In his own words, he thought it was ‘awesome.’”