Saying 'YES' to nature: Youth Environmental Stewardship Camp connects learning and the outdoors

By Gail Heathman | Aug 19, 2013
Photo by: Donated photo Morgen Fry and Kari Warren show off one of their finds while camping in Cataloochee Valley the last night of camp.

For 37 local students, some aspects of science class will be different this fall, but not because a new school year has begun with new teachers. It will be because, as Kristin Farmer wrote, she had “an experience I will never forget.”  Not that the things she learned necessarily surprised her — only that she “learned educational things through a different perspective,” Farmer wrote.

The different perspective referred to by Farmer was perhaps that of being outdoors compared to indoors — tree identification is just easier when the leaves being studied are attached to a living tree rooted on a mountainside. And even when the lesson goes beyond tree I.D. to the more complex subject of phenology, with students recording data related to climate and canopy cover, it is way more fun than learning through the usual methods.

Farmer, a rising freshman at Pisgah High School, was in her second week of the Youth Environmental Stewardship Camp (YES), the environmental day camp offered each summer by the Haywood Soil and Water Conservation District. YES Camp began on a trial basis 14 years ago during a rainy week in June with a handful of middle school kids, a jovial and entertaining (but knowledgeable) science teacher, Mark Ethridge and some folks from the Soil and Water Conservation District, who actually think about education a good deal.

Notwithstanding the frequent downpours, that first camp was a success. Grant money was obtained and, since it was hard to fit all the exciting things kids could learn into just one week, a second one was added. Through the years the camp has evolved in some ways, but its foundation has proven to be remarkably solid. Water day, for example, remains the same, beginning at the Waynesville Watershed where Roger Patterson talks with unwavering enthusiasm to the kids about the process of water purification. Later the students wade into Richland Creek with kick nets to capture critters like mayflies, caddisflies and stoneflies, and then visit the Triple R Dairy Farm to learn how farmers avoid polluting water (and of course, get acquainted with some adorably knobby-kneed calves). At the final stop, the waste treatment plant, campers learn the particulars of waste water treatment while unsuccessfully trying not to inhale.

The camp is filled with other experiences, of course. No self-respecting environmental camp would be complete without a visit to the landfill and then to the Materials Recovery Center (MRF). There students get a good look at mountains of aluminum cans, paper, glass and even used carpet and computers that have been kept out of the landfill by citizens who care enough to recycle. It makes an impact; very often on evaluation forms, campers express plans to increase their recycling efforts.

And then there is Purchase Knob, where even the most feminine girl discovers what she wants most in life is to capture an agile salamander hiding beneath a slice of a tree trunk known as a tree cookie. Once the salamander is identified, weighed, measured and gently returned to the same place it was caught, she can leave “her” salamander knowing she and her teammates have made a contribution to science as they begin the mountain hike that is the other part of a visit to Purchase Knob.

While YES Campers frequently find themselves hiking up and down mountains, this year’s visit to Purchase Knob afforded some unexpected excitement in the form of a large timber rattler stretched across the trail ahead — the first poisonous snake encountered in the camp’s history. Led by Erika Bendick, a Park Service intern both young and brave, all the campers lived to tell the story. In the midst of interesting sights like unusual mushrooms, Bear Corn and Ghost Plants, probably the most comforting view beheld by YES Campers on that hot day was the big rattler slowly crawling off in the opposite direction.

How can the success of a program like this be measured? One tangible aspect would be the number of students; more than ever before attended this year’s camp with several names waiting on next year’s list. A second science teacher, Sharon Flowe, was added last year. A third teacher, Sue Miller, simply enjoys the experience and the kids, bringing the benefits of her background in geology as well as another adult presence. The fact that Miller is spending two weeks doing what she does when working is not something we point out lest she forget she’s supposed to be off — but then again, there is that difference between a classroom and a hiking trail. And that leads back to the reason “Coach E” and the Soil and Water Conservation District folks came up with the whole camp idea. In getting outdoors, away from the noise and technology that too often crowd our days, we make room in our minds and spirits for connecting with nature. And that connection makes learning about resources like water, soil, trees and air quality come naturally, if you will. Just ask a YES camper.


Week I attendees:

Jozy Balance, Alayna Blaylock, Lydia Dowdell, Elizabeth Flowe, MacKenzie Flowe, Rebecca Frazier, Megan Galloway, Victoria Grasty, Dominique Medford, Jade Monday, Amanda Parsons, Tessa Rabideau, Carli Stiles, Natalie Swaim, Sarah Swaim, Mackinney Supola, Lauren Trader, Celia Tucker and Ellen Weaver

Week II attendees:

Kayden Cox, Nina Dove, Kristin Farmer, Connie Feinberg, Morgen Fry, Madeline Harverson, Megan Harverson, Geran Holt, Jennifer McHenry, Tyler Reece, Naomi Sasser, Rose Torda, Holden Thomason, Holly Warren, Kari Warren, Maura Wittkop, Alex Zacher and Ashley Zander

Note: The YES Camp owes its success to the support of several agencies, groups and individuals that deserve to be mentioned for their valuable contributions, including the Pigeon River Fund and Board of Directors; Haywood Soil and Water Conservation District Board of Supervisors; Haywood Soil and Water Conservation District Staff; Haywood County Schools; Haywood Soil Waste Management (Stephen King and Zondra Robinson of Materials Recovery Facility Recycling and Randy Siske of Francis Farm Landfill); The Mountain Research Station (Kaleb Rathbone); the Francis Mill (Tim and Tanna Timbes and volunteers Jerry Donnahoe and Randy Siske); Waynesville Watershed (Roger Patterson); Waynesville Waste Treatment Plant (Ronnie Norris and Mark Jones); Great Smoky Mountains National Park — Purchase Knob (Susan Sachs, Paul Super and Erika Bendick); Division of Soil and Water Conservation, NCDA&CS (Davis Ferguson); Triple R Dairy Farm (Steve Ross); Jukebox Junction (Mike Graham); White Oak Landfill — Santek (John Preston); Wal-Mart; and Frank Wolf.


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