What better way to learn and promote environmental stewardship than holding a butterfly net in one hand or wading knee-deep in a mountain stream?
For over 75 years, Nature Camp has taught youth summer campers to conserve and protect the environment, becoming wise stewards of earth’s natural resources. Nestled in an idyllic valley in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, about halfway between Staunton and Lexington, our setting provides us an extensive outdoor classroom of several thousand acres of pristine forested mountains and streams.
We’re a sleepaway camp and our days are full! From 7:30am to 10pm, our campers enjoy abundant free time that offers numerous opportunities to enjoy the outdoors, strengthen friendships, and participate in a wide variety of activities. When not studying, our co-ed campers can play sports, swim in our pool or Big Mary’s Creek, or go mountain hiking. Evening programs feature presentations from counselors or outside speakers, talent shows, campfires, and nature films.
Each day at Nature Camp begins with Reveille at 7:30 AM, followed by a flag raising ceremony on the playfield at 8:00. After breakfast campers tidy up their belongings and personal space in the bunkhouses and prepare for morning class, which meets from 9:00 to 10:30. This class period is followed by a free (or recreation) period until noon, when lunch is served. From 12:30 to 1:30 everyone enjoys rest period. During this time campers are expected to remain quietly in their bunks; this is an excellent time for them to work on reports for classes, write letters home, or simply take a nap. The canteen is open for 45 minutes after rest period. Afternoon class is held from 2:15 to 3:45, followed by the afternoon rec period. Supper is preceded by flag lowering at 6:00. The evening rec period lasts until 8:00 or 8:30, depending on the age of the campers. After a half-hour of singing, there is an evening program every night for the entire assembly of campers and staff. Each night ends with Taps and lights out around 10:00 or 10:30.
7:30 AM Reveille
8:00 AM Breakfast
9:00 AM Morning Class
10:45 AM Morning Recreation Period
12:00 PM Lunch
12:30 PM Rest Period
1:30 PM Canteen Open
2:15 PM Afternoon Class
3:45 PM Afternoon Recreation Period
6:00 PM Supper
6:30 PM Evening Recreation Period
8:00 PM Evening Program
10:00 PM Taps and Lights Out
Evening programs vary from educational to purely entertaining. We often invite outside speakers, including scientists, naturalists, conservationists, environmental educators, and Nature Camp alumni, to present a slide show on a topic of expertise or interest. Campers and counselors each have a night to showcase their abilities in a talent show. Other programs include live, traditional music, which we try to provide at least once a session and which may be accompanied by square dancing, and a campfire during which the campers eat s’mores and hear stories about colorful characters in the Nature Camp lore.
Throughout each day campers take turns doing chores assigned on a rotating basis. These duties include setting the tables before each meal, cleaning the bunkhouses and T-houses after breakfast, sweeping the L.S. building after meals, and collecting garbage and recyclable materials after supper. A counselor always supervises the campers as they perform these duties. Nature Camp places great emphasis on cleanliness and order. The bunkhouses and T-houses are inspected each morning, and inspection scores are announced at lunch. The bunkhouse which compiles the highest cumulative score during the session is awarded a picnic on the last Friday.
Nature Camp is intended for young people who have a genuine interest in nature and conservation. Those looking only for a recreational experience will not be happy here. But those with a passion for learning and a love of the outdoors will find peers with similar interests and a nurturing and supportive environment which may kindle a spark into a flame of enthusiastic commitment to environmental stewardship. A number of former campers have gone on to become professional scientists, naturalists, and ardent conservationists, but for many more whose vocations may not take root at Nature Camp, a lifelong love and appreciation of nature do begin to grow here.
Once described as a place “where fingertips are taught to see,” Nature Camp is an academic camp that emphasizes hands-on, field-based, experiential learning. Campers learn in a variety of settings, including classrooms both inside and out (although even these are non-traditional, such as a semi-circle of wooden benches under a tree canopy), and they can expect to take notes in most classes. But campers also spend much of their time out of doors investigating nature up close: behind the eyepieces of binoculars, knee-deep in a cold stream, running behind a butterfly net, and on hands and knees with eyes peeled on the ground. Nature Camp is surrounded on three sides by several thousand acres of National Forest land, which provides an extensive outdoor classroom of forested mountains and streams.
Classes meet twice a day, except on the middle Sunday and the last Friday, for 90 minutes in the morning and in the afternoon. At the beginning of each session, campers choose one subject as their “major” class. Major classes meet on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and the first Saturday, for a total of 15 hours of instruction, which allows the campers to explore one particular subject in depth. Campers rotate through the other “minor” classes on alternate days (Mondays, Wednesdays, and the first Friday), attending one class in each subject. Each camper keeps a notebook during the session and is expected to complete a written project for each class, which is intended to expand on the material covered in class and to provide them with tangible evidence of what they learned at Nature Camp and what they are capable of doing. Assignments typically begin with field observations but may also require directed research using the many resources available in the Nature Camp library. There are no grades, although class instructors provide positive, encouraging comments on all reports. Campers organize their reports in a folder at the end of the session, and a prize is awarded to the camper who has compiled the most outstanding notebook.
The educational curriculum typically includes 11 classes, which permits campers to take one major class and have one minor period in each of the other ten. A core set of seven classes is taught almost every summer, although the instructors and particular emphasis of each class usually vary from year to year. These classes are:
• Entomology (the study of insects)
• Herpetology (the study of reptiles and amphibians)
• Limnology (the study of freshwater ecosystems)
• Ornithology (the study of birds)
Additional classes are offered when a qualified and knowledgeable instructor is available or develops an innovative idea for a new class. In recent summers the curriculum has included such classes as Appalachian studies, astronomy, conservation, dendrology (the study of trees), environmental ethics, “larvotany” (the study of insect larvae and their host plants), meteorology, mycology (the study of fungi, including mushrooms), nature journaling, spiders, wildlife art, and even environmental microbiology and forensic entomology. The variation in classes from year to year means that returning campers are guaranteed to have a different experience each summer, but having a familiar set of classes gives them several opportunities to learn a particular subject.
Educational opportunities are not limited just to formal class periods. For example, occasional, optional birdwalks before Reveille or nighttime excursions in search of salamanders, to call owls, or to catch moths give campers additional chances to experience nature on its own timetable. During recreation periods counselors may offer hikes seeking plants, rocks, or stream inhabitants or organize investigations using the microscopes in the lab.
Campers enjoy five or six hours of free time each day, compared to only three hours spent in scheduled classes.
Three recreation periods offer numerous opportunities to work on class projects, engage in informal nature study, and visit with friends, but also to participate in many structured outdoor activities organized by the counselors.
A chlorinated, filtered swimming pool is open when weather permits and is staffed by certified lifeguards. Big Mary’s Creek, which borders Nature Camp, also provides welcome relief on hot days; especially popular are such spots as the Girls’ Swimming Hole and Table Rock, which features a natural water slide.
A recreation field has courts for volleyball, basketball and tetherball, as well as open space for Frisbee, kickball and other games. Campers may sign out a variety of recreational equipment for their own use during these free periods.
With mountains on either side of Nature Camp, there are also countless possibilities for hiking, and several hikes are offered during most rec periods. These include climbs to Lookout Rock, which affords a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains and Valley of Virginia, and walks to South River for swimming and wading. All hikes are led and supervised by counselors.
On the middle Sunday of each session, we take a break from classes and spend the day hiking the mountains and valleys of the area, in a tradition that dates almost to the beginning of Nature Camp. These hikes vary in difficulty and length, and campers have the opportunity to sign up for a hike that suits their interests and abilities. Counselors carry water, sandwiches, and trail mix for lunch. Before breakfast on Sunday, there is a brief, inspirational chapel service, as well as a longer one in the evening after everyone has returned to camp.
The Fourth of July is another special day of celebration when no classes are held. Although the specific schedule of events changes each summer, there are usually trash hikes in the morning, during which campers are divided into groups and pick up litter from along nearby roads. The afternoon includes a full slate of fun activities, including a scavenger hunt, mile run, water balloon tossing contest, and Nature Camp marathon. The day ends with a festive parade in the evening.
On the last Friday night of the session, we have our Closing Ceremony, an evening rich with tradition during which we recognize those campers who have particularly distinguished themselves throughout the course of the session and prepare to say goodbye to one another. The program begins in the chapel and ends with a moving candlelight ceremony that processes to the swimming pool. This is one occasion when we ask campers to look their best and dress accordingly.
Nature Camp has always defined itself as a camp that emphasizes conservation. Although we seek to fulfill our mission to inspire environmental awareness and responsible citizenship by cultivating an interest in nature rather than preaching rhetoric of environmental destruction, we also recognize the importance of engaging in practices which are consistent with this mission and which limit our consumption of natural resources and minimize our impact on the earth.
- Recycling—We recycle glass and plastic bottles, aluminum and steel cans, cardboard, and mixed paper. Recycling bins are conveniently located around camp, and campers gather recyclable materials every evening and consolidate them in large containers behind the kitchen. Several times a session these materials are transported to a local recycling center.
- Recycled paper products—Nature Camp also uses napkins, paper towels, bathroom tissue and office paper made from recycled paper with as high a post-consumer waste content as possible (80-100%). This means that the paper is made from material that has already been used at least once, rather than made simply from scrap wood and pulp discarded from the process of making virgin paper. Recycled paper uses less water to produce, reduces water and air pollution, and conserves forests. In addition we use paper napkins and towels made from paper that is unbleached or bleached with hydrogen peroxide rather than chlorine, which allows this paper to be composted. Chlorine bleaching produces dioxin, a dangerous carcinogen.
- Composting—Since the late 1990s Nature Camp has composted food scraps (excluding at and dairy products) from the kitchen. In 2005 we expanded our composting efforts to include appropriate foods left over after meals. This food waste is combined daily with leaves or wood chips to create the proper balance between materials high in carbon and those high in nitrogen, to promote decomposition, and to minimize odors. The compost that is generated is then used to enrich garden beds in which produce for the Nature Camp kitchen is grown, thus completing the cycle of production, waste, composting, and fertilization.
- Energy-efficient light bulbs—Most buildings at Nature Camp are equipped with light fixtures that use compact fluorescent bulbs. These bulbs produce similarly bright light but consume two-thirds less energy than and last up to ten times as long as equivalent incandescent bulbs. If every American home replaced one incandescent bulb with a compact fluorescent bulb, the reduction in pollution would be equivalent to removing one million cars from the road. External floodlights use even more efficient LED bulbs and are equipped with motion-detector sensors so that they do not have to remain on all night.
- Water conservation—Although a deep well provides an adequate supply of water, campers are encouraged to conserve water by limiting the duration of showers and turning off the water while lathering and while brushing teeth. Showers are equipped with low-flow heads, and modern toilets use relatively little water per flush. A rain barrel supplies water for the garden.
- Support of local and organic food producers and suppliers—In recent years we have begun to purchase a significant fraction of food for the kitchen from local farmers and other suppliers. These producers generally employ land use practices that work in harmony with nature; conserve topsoil, water, and heirloom varieties of plants; rely on natural rather than synthetic fertilizers and pesticides; and eschew genetically modified organisms. Click here for more information about some of these local food sources. We also have a small garden in which we grow our own tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, greens, and herbs.
At the beginning and end of each session, campers recite the Conservation Pledge which hangs above the mantel in the Lillian Schilling Building. This pledge was written by writer Ben East after a meeting of conservationists in 1937 that led to the formation of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs. Widely adopted by scores of other organizations, the Conservation Pledge reads
I give my pledge as an American to save and faithfully to defend from waste the natural resources of my country: its air, soil and minerals, its forests, waters and wildlife.
Local food at Nature Camp
Nature Camp has long taken pride in the food we serve campers and staff. Our cooks prepare three balanced, nutritious meals a day using fresh ingredients as much as possible and practical. Nature Camp’s varied menu includes many meatless meals, and vegetarian and vegan options are always available as alternatives to dishes containing meat. Campers may frequently help themselves to fresh fruit after meals and free of charge in the canteen (camp store).
In 2006 Nature Camp constructed a small garden of raised beds, where we grow greens, tomatoes, cucumbers and other produce to supplement food purchased for the kitchen. More recently we have begun to acquire more locally sourced food. In 2009 we established the first of three current relationships with local vegetable producers, who have supplied the kitchen with potatoes, onions, lettuce, corn, broccoli, cauliflower, squash, beets, carrots, green beans, cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, peaches, and plums. Over 30 percent of the food dollars Nature Camp spent in 2010 went toward food grown, raised, or produced within 100 miles of Vesuvius.
In addition to our local vegetable producers, Nature Camp’s other food vendors include
- Donald’s Meat Processing—In October 2009 Charlie Potter, a fifth-generation cattle farmer in Rockbridge County, reopened Donald’s Meat Processing, along with Steve and Tim Donald, whose grandfather had founded the original business, Donald’s Slaughterhouse, in the 1930s just outside of Lexington. Now operating as both an abattoir and retail store, Donald’s Meat Processing, a USDA-inspected facility, carries Charlie Potter’s own Buffalo Creek beef, as well as beef from other local producers and chicken and pork from the surrounding area.
- Mountain View Farm Products—Christie and Fred Huger operate a dairy farm near Fairfield. Christie makes artisanal cheese, butter, and other dairy products under the label Mountain View Farm Products. The Hugers, who occasionally supply beef to Nature Camp as well, raise their cattle without added hormones or antibiotics.
- Wade’s Mill—Jim and Georgie Young operate Wade’s Mill, a water-powered grist mill in nearby Raphine which dates to approximately 1750. There they produce stone-ground flour, much of it from wheat grown in the Valley of Virginia. In 2010 our cooks baked almost all the bread consumed at Nature Camp, using over 1300 pounds of flour from Wade’s Mill.
- Homestead Creamery—Located near Burnt Chimney in Franklin County, Homestead Creamery obtains all its milk from two local dairy farms. Their pasteurized milk, which does not contain added hormones or antibiotics, is sold in reusable glass bottles. Nature Camp purchases Homestead Creamery milk through Donald’s Meat Processing.
Why buy local food?
We believe that supporting local food vendors is not only consistent with, but central to, our mission at Nature Camp. Buying local food
- Protects the environment—The average item of food in the United States travels nearly 1500 miles before reaching the table. Buying locally reduces emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases and lessens the need for wasteful packaging material.
- Safeguards health—Nature Camp has established relationships with food producers which generally avoid (or refrain from using altogether) pesticides, herbicides, synthetic chemicals, antibiotics, or genetically modified seed. Local fruits and vegetables are generally fresher, more flavorful, and more nutritious than produce grown commercially and shipped long distances
- Strengthens the local, rural economy—Purchasing food from individuals you know keeps money in the local community and supports family farm operations. Since 1935, the U.S. has lost 4.7 million farms, while large corporations have come to increasingly dominate food production. If every Virginia household spent at least $10 a week on locally grown food, more than $137 million would be invested in local farms, independent businesses and the community every month, totaling more than $1.65 billion a year.
For more information and to help find local sources of food in your community, visit these websites:
Buy Fresh Buy Local Virginia
Eat Local Challenge
Slow Food USA