A group photo of the campers after a digital scavenger hunt in Get Out and Get Dirty Camp. (Photo provided by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

A group photo of the campers after a digital scavenger hunt in Get Out and Get Dirty Camp. (Photo provided by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Refuge Notebook: And just like that, I was in full camp mode

Meredith Baker

Kenai National Wildlife Refuge

As a child, being outdoors was a huge part of my life. Some of my favorite memories are those in nature with the people I love. These memories included canoeing with my dad, fishing for bluegill with my grandfather, getting dirty in creeks in my best friend’s backyard, or even going to environmental education camps at a local arboretum in my hometown of Newark, Ohio.

Fast forward to 2019, and I am leading that same summer camp at the arboretum. At the time, I was a rising sophomore at Ohio State majoring in ecology and hoping to do research in that field. But little did I know, this one summer camp counseling job would point me closer to a career in environmental education and Alaska.

The following year, in 2020, many summer camps had to shut down and turn away kids. Not only were they turning away campers, but also camp counselors were left looking for summer jobs. As a college student trying to gain more independence, find your way through your career, and maneuver relationships with friends and family, this was a difficult time.

By the spring of 2021, I was applying to many jobs, just hoping something would stick. The Student Conservation Association had various positions in Alaska, and I figured I would throw my name in the hat.

After a summer of no camps and my ratio of applications and rejection letters, it was quite a shock when I received the first email from Ranger Michelle Ostrowski at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Honestly, I thought it was a scam. When offered the 13-week environmental education intern position, I said I had to “think on it,” but as soon as I hung up the phone, I was jumping up and down with excitement.

The next two weeks were a whirlwind of packing, making last-minute summer memories with friends and moving out of my apartment in Columbus. I was so uncertain of what this summer would look like, but I anticipated a lot of time without cell service, old cabins in the deep woods and a lot fewer mosquitoes.

Within my first week, I was in awe of Alaska. I cannot describe how much my expectations were blown out of the water. Everyone I met was extremely friendly, the views were gorgeous, and I immediately felt at home.

A few more weeks and the education team was in full camp mode. We were cutting out ladybug crafts, filling Dixie cups with goldfish and preparing scavenger hunts.

Helping with and leading these camps was so much fun. The campers were hilarious and eager to learn. One day, we came back to the education center after a hike, and one of the campers said, “I wish camp never ended!” I love this job because it is so rewarding to see the camper’s face light up when they feel like this, know a fun fact or they learn something to share with others later.

Summer camps like these are so important for the campers, just like they were for me in the arboretum. Unfortunately, the refuge did not have camp last year and did not have an online program for camp either. The purpose of camps like these is to physically get kids out into nature. Being on a screen for hours just doesn’t cut it.

Refuge camps allow them to be outside, make new friends in a more “normal” setting and to be safely learning about nature and the refuge system. COVID-19 adjustments of cleaning shared materials, wearing masks as needed and being 100% outside made it possible for these kids to “get out and get dirty.”

As a camp counselor, you get to connect with the campers throughout the week. They share jokes, riddles or fun facts, and their personalities shine through. Although it is cliche to say, I learned a lot from them as well.

The last day of our four-week-long camp sessions was bittersweet. After some of the rangers and I sang the “Scat Rap” earlier in the week, the kids requested to perform it live for their families at the end of camp. Hearing the sweet sound of campers singing, “It starts with an S and ends with a T, it comes out of you, and it comes out of me,” was a perfect ending to a great few weeks of camp.

However, the end of camp meant my time at the refuge was nearing its end, too.

While I loved my job here and working with the kids at camps, the refuge staff community that developed throughout the summer will be difficult to leave. This summer, I fell under the wings of great mentors who have helped me gain experience and build my skill set toward my future career.

In addition, I developed friendships with some fantastic people who work at the refuge and other environmental organizations. The memories I made and the adventures I had with these new friends truly made this summer life-changing!

Even in one summer, it is easy to see why many of the refuge’s employees started as interns and never left. While I love my home in Ohio, I am considering coming back next year because I too “wish that camp would never end.”

Meredith Baker is a 13-week Environmental Education intern at the Refuge from Columbus, Ohio. She is currently attending The Ohio State University and plans to graduate with a Bachelor’s of Science in Ecology and Evolution in December 2021. Find more Refuge Notebook articles (1999–present) at https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Kenai/community/refuge_notebook.html

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