Woodcock Nature Center — Dirt can’t hurt

There was shocking news at Woodcock Nature Center’s camp last week. Tank, the snapping turtle, thought to be a male, is now Tankette, discovered to be a female after she laid eggs earlier this year.

It must be said, the third and fourth graders in the red group, who were spending some time outdoors with Tankette, took the news with equanimity, inquiring when the name on her indoor habitat would be changed. And no, there are no new snapping turtles, Tankette’s eggs were not fertile.

The snapping turtle encounter was just one of the activities going on at the very busy nature center where 96 campers were in the playground, out on trails, playing games, making crafts or engaged in other activities.

Most of the campers are in kindergarten through sixth grade, although there is a half-day program for three- and four-year-olds. This year the nature center also offered two weeks for seventh and eighth graders called Uncharted. The program allows them a certain amount of independence.

“They go off trail to parts of the nature center no one else gets to,” said Lenore Herbst, Woodcock’s executive director. “The older kids were looking for an upgraded experience,” she added.

Every camper gets to meet the animals, make nature crafts and go on hikes. They also get a camp T-shirt with a spotted salamander and the theme: Dirt can’t hurt.

The older kids go out on canoes and scoop for turtles and frogs in the pond or put on waders and walk in swampy areas, seeing what they can find. Younger children get to go on a raft ride with their counselors, who are college students majoring in environmental studies, education or similar subjects. High school students work as counselors-in-training.

Back at the nature center building where the red group sat on carpet squares, they learned that Tankette is about 18 years old. She was found by a former camper when he was in second grade who kept her as a pet. When he went off to college, the nature center took her in.

“Tank has never bitten anyone,” camp director Sarah Breznen told the kids, using the turtle’s former name, “but don’t walk up to one in the wild.”

Tankette weighs around 10 to 15 pounds and her shell is a bit bigger than a Frisbee, but snappers out in the wild can live to be 60 and get to about two feet in diameter. There are snappping turtles in the pond at Woodcock that are bigger than Tankette. Their names are Chicken and Bruce, and Bruce is the largest.

Snapping turtles, the campers learned, are ambush predators.

“Does anyone know what ambush means?” one of the counselors asked.

Benjamin Pearl volunteered, “Say someone’s walking around and all of a sudden they get killed by something hiding behind a tree.”

That’s correct, he was told. Snapping turtles hide in the mud and then snag an unaware frog, fish or other animal.

Real grilled cheese

After the turtle was put back in her habitat, a walk along one of the trails brought a visitor to a “secret” location where seventh and eighth graders were having a cookout, making grilled cheese sandwiches over a fire.

Each camper received two slices of bread, which they buttered and then filled with American cheese. They wrapped the sandwiches in foil and toasted them on an open flame.

When asked what they liked best about camp, their responses were varied: exploring, the environment, eating food, turtles, uncharted exploration.

The group was taking a lunch break after exploring off-trail with educator Sam Nunes where they found wood frogs, tree frogs and a big, spotted slug.

Elizabeth Rogers, 13, from Ridgefield, is spending her seventh summer at Woodcock.

“I love the exploring and the area and made a lot of nice friends,” she said when asked why she keeps coming back. “I like holding the animals,” she added.

For Addison Avery-Payne, 12, also from Ridgefield, this is her first time at camp at Woodcock.

“I like canoeing and off-trail exploring,” she said. When her mother asked her if she’d like to attend, she “decided to try it. Some of my friends are coming. I like nature and I want to come back next year.”

Walking back to the main area, Herbst said she finds it “very gratifying when I hear younger kids say they want to be counselors-in-training.”

Paying it forward with a love for nature is what Woodcock is all about.

Information: woodcocknaturecenter.org.