YES you can — Youth Environmental Stewardship Camp is a big hit
It was a warm June day, but shady in the park where the research was going on. Researchers recording data looked intently at the number revealed by the spring scale, a sensitive instrument used to weigh a captive salamander, suspended in its Ziploc bag. The salamander also had to be carefully identified — there are 30 species in the Great Smoky Mountains, some found no other place on Earth. While in the bag, the salamander’s length was measured from snout to cloaca. Another researcher was poised to record this data as well as the ground temperature. Finally, the salamander was carefully released as close as possible to the spot where it was captured.
Those picturing adults in white lab coats will need to switch to an image of a group of mostly 14-year-olds attending the environmental camp known as the Youth Environmental Stewardship (YES) Camp this summer. But hold on to the idea of serious research going on, because it is indeed research the students do at the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center — more commonly known as Purchase Knob.
Gathering data for research is only one of the many adventures students experience during the camp. It is the only place visited both weeks of the YES Camp; during the second week, a different group of students collected insects in the woods and later identified them using a microscope and screen projector. The campers, all girls, were a hardy bunch, quickly adapting to seeing giant spiders and centipedes on the screen.
This year marked the camp’s 15th year since the Haywood Soil and Water Conservation District held the first one in 1999, with dynamic high school science teacher Mark Ethridge as the camp’s lead instructor. “Coach E.” is still the camp’s leader along with science teachers Sharon Flowe and Sue Miller and a host of other resource experts who have contributed tours and demonstrations for the kids for so many years that they are considered part of the team.
Campers toured the Waynesville Water Treatment Plant and reservoir, the historic Francis Mill, Triple R Dairy Farm, Waynesville Wastewater Treatment Plant, the Materials Recovery Facility, the Haywood County Landfill and the Francis Farm Landfill.
Opportunities to have fun are woven amid the lessons about more serious topics — campers visit Sliding Rock and use kick nets in Richland Creek to catch and identify aquatic insects like mayflies or dragonfly nymphs.
And hikes abound, whether at Devil’s Courthouse, the Pink Beds or the Richland-Balsam trail, offering a chance to see mountain bogs, identify trees and, of course, the ever-present search for crawdads, snails and salamanders.
Evaluation forms done by this year’s 32 students mentioned a variety of things they learned about, such as endangered species, the number of items — beyond cans, bottles and paper — that can be recycled now, how mountain bogs filter water and help prevent floods, and that more springtails than other kinds of insects live in the leaf litter examined by the campers.
For years the camp has received grant funding from the Pigeon River Fund, making it possible to keep registration fees at the jaw-dropping low rate of $25. In return, the PRF expects students to gain educational benefits when it comes to stewardship of our water.
Tammy Cox, whose daughter Kayden just finished the camp, saw some astonishing changes in her daughter.
“She had the most extraordinary time,” said Cox. “Last summer she came home from one of the afternoons, shoes covered in mud, hair everywhere, and with a giant smile on her face. She greeted me with, ‘I caught a salamander in the river today!’ I knew right then that YES Camp had been a great opportunity in my daughter's life.”
Cox says Kayden had many wonderful experiences during last year’s YES Camp that she couldn’t wait for the next one.
“She has been to all kinds of places that she wouldn't have ever gone to without this amazing camp,” said Cox. “She loved snorkeling in the river and seeing schools of fish swim right past her. She filled our home with tales of ice cold swimming holes, mountains you could slide down right into a pool of spring water, and all the wildlife she learned about that lived right here in her own backyard. “The only bad thing about YES Camp is that it is just a two-week program.”
A common complaint is that the camp is only a two-week program. It means the camp continues to be a very good thing — for kids, for parents and YES — for the environment.
Gail Heathman is the education coordinator for the Haywood Soil and Water Conservation District.