Pleasanton Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - July 9, 2010

Discovering nature

Ridge Runners camp opens up new worlds to children

by Melissa Ott

Six and 7-year-olds up to their necks in creek water, forcing themselves to be quiet to keep the scene as naturally serene as possible. Children silently tiptoeing through Arroyo del Valle creek trails, looking for signs and tracks to lead them to natural treasures. Spending time in the great outdoors and seeing more than just a mass of green foliage. This is Ridge Runners nature camp.

Naturalist Eric Nicholas runs this five-day summer camp with a philosophy that incorporates the adventures he recalls having in childhood. He wants a fun, engaging camp that teaches the value, beauty and wonder of nature to children.

The camp has been around for about 10 years, but Nicholas, who's been with the city of Pleasanton for three years, has made it into the exciting experience it is today. He has help from counselors, who are 15-1/2, and counselors-in-training, called CITs, who are as young as 12.

"It's my goal to provide youth with the opportunity to constantly increase their awareness of the natural world around them and successfully become more attuned and comfortable with wildlife and to develop lifelong love for the outdoors," Nicholas says.

Campers may encounter snakes, tarantulas and other wildlife, and each camp experience is different. It's all about learning to appreciate and respect wildlife.

The camp focuses on five main places and concepts, each adding one more tool to the young naturalists' tool belts. By the end of the week, the campers are equipped with a better understanding and new perspective of the natural world.

One day everyone meets at Augustin Bernal Wilderness Park near the Pleasanton Ridge to focus on identifying trees and learning to see beyond them.

"It is always fun to see the kids' reactions to the stories that Eric tells while on the hikes," says Emilie Fiala, who was a counselor last year. "When the kids have a chance to see a rattlesnake on the trail or frogs at the pond, their eyes light up and I know that it is a moment they will never forget."

On the other side of town, Shadow Cliffs Regional Park has a network of trails that meander through shaded areas and beside creeks. Learning how to track and identify signs of wildlife is the focus when camp is here.

Nicholas and two or three CITs hide, leaving tracks and signs along the way that a trained eye would be able to identify, leaving the campers to find their way to the hiding place. This activity teaches them to use sensory awareness to see more than they normally would -- and it gives the hiding CITs a chance to work on their skills in being silent and alert. A person needs to be attuned to the workings of the natural world to recognize the subtle signs of an animal's recent presence.

Nicholas also integrates local history lessons into the camp. The Alviso Adobe Community Park at 3465 Old Foothill Road is an interpretive center run by Nicholas with volunteers. It is at the location of the original Meadowlark Dairy and features the three main historical eras of Pleasanton: the Ohlone Native Americans; the Spanish missionary period when the adobe was first built; and the Meadowlark Dairy era of the 1800s.

Campers meet at the park to learn about a variety of things: native plants, their historical medicinal uses, and how to use senses to come in contact with plants; tools of the Ohlone including mortals, pestles and atlatls (spear throwers); and what rural life was like at the dairy. Campers also plant in the park's gardens to provide food for native bees and butterflies.

This year, one day will be spent at the Bernal Creek Restoration and Ponds, giving campers an opportunity to learn about aquatic birds and wildlife, utilizing naturalist skills through field studies.

The accumulating information becomes useful the final day of camp at the Sunol-Ohlone Regional Wilderness, where there are various plants that children can identify and signs that the Ohlone once lived there. Naturalists at the Sunol Wilderness work with campers to catch bugs to teach how certain ones in a creek can signify the creek's health.

After lunch comes an activity some campers like best -- a hike through the waist-high creek. The hike is slippery at some points and reminiscent of a jungle in others. Mint plants, cattails, flowers and various insects line the hike, and Ridge Runner campers are careful not to tread roughly on plants. The grand finale comes with a wading pool where all the campers, at the count of three, dunk their heads into the water. Last year this inspired a first-year camper named Catherine to exclaim that she wants to go to Ridge Runner's camp "again and again and again!"

Not only is the camp fun, but it also offers children important opportunities in today's fast-paced, electronically active world. Nicholas understands that children need nature for healthy development and a healthy perspective. Ridge Runner's camp is a way for kids to get out and really see the natural world that is not always easily available to them.

Sign up for camp

What: Ridge Runners Nature Day Camp

Ages: Ages 6-11

Hours: 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday

Day camps: One-week sessions run through July 24, some with an overnight option. Prices range from $188-$248, more for nonresidents.

Information: Eric Nicholas, 931-3483

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