THE TOUCH OF THE
WILD

 

At a family camp on a tiny island off the coast of Maine, a father and his sons return to nature and discover that some of its greatest lessons are those that heal the heart.

By Ted Levin
Photography by
John Huet

 

It's a late August day, just after 10 A.M. the sun burns through wispy clouds, and the wind shifts from brisk to calm and back again, unbroken by the Gulf of Maine. I'm with my two boys, Casey and Jordy, 14 and 5, respectively, and a boatload of other participants in the Audubon Family Camp in Maine. This is more than a celebration of nature and family. It's a chance for me to truly be with my boys, without technological distractions. The boat's broad wake is sliced perpendicularly by a harbor porpoise.

This morning we're off Eastern Egg Rock, a hardscrabble island at the far end of Muscongus Bay, a sort of Grand Central Station for coastal birds. Laughing gulls and terns--common and roseate and Arctic--pass overhead. Eiders follow-the-leader past black guillemots that bob on the swells like bathtub toys. Atlantic puffins (six, to be precise) whir back and forth above the chop, sometimes close enough for us to see their oversize red-and-yellow beaks, luminous in the morning light. Jordy, who adores puffins (as well as eagles, orcas, cheetahs, and various large, toothy reptiles), is absolutely engrossed, which pleases me and spares his brother from the parade of questions that a five-year-old might inflict on an older sibling.

The boys love to travel. And, for the most part, they're easy to travel with. Very few complaints or outlandish requests. From the time they were infants, my wife, Linny, and I took them everywhere--they've nursed themselves to sleep from Alaska to Newfoundland to the desert Southwest. A hint of campfire smoke lingers on most of their outdoor clothes. Casey, when he was his brother's age, once lured a barred owl to within five feet, hooting softly to the bird from the seat of his bicycle. Jordy has never met a snake or a frog he didn't like, and he broadcasts the news whenever he discovers a strange-looking insect.

Although the boys love the wonders of nature and appreciate life's grand diversity, I hardly took them anywhere after their mother died last November, at the age of 49. Whenever we had traveled as a family, Linny had been the organizer, the program director. She would remember the toys, the books, the snacks, the toenail clippers. I had been the consultant, the mule, the enthusiast. After Linny died, life without a compass seemed best lived close to home.

In 1936 the Audubon Society began conducting nature camps on Hog Island, 330 acres of spruce and fir that hugs the coast inside Muscongus Bay, a quarter-mile from the mainland, a mere gull's flap away. For the past three years the roster of programs has expanded to devote a week to the entire family. Our accommodations there are comfortably rustic: a two-story, wooden dormitory, with a shared bathroom and shower. The boys take the bunk beds, Casey on top. I'm in the corner bed, wedged between the desk and the closet. Our room serves one purpose--sleep; otherwise we're attending lectures, playing games, singing, making art projects, or taking field courses on subjects ranging from oceanography to forest ecology. Our room time is cut even shorter by night hikes--on which the boys stir up a Milky Way of phosphorescent algae--boat cruises, and early-morning bird walks.

Hog Island is full of wonder and mystery. Twice each day the sea pulls back from the shore, exposing weed-covered boulders and tidepools rife with crabs and snails and barnacles. At sunrise, 10 or 12 species of warblers flit through the evergreens, harvesting the last caterpillars of summer, while offshore, cormorants and ospreys tow their shadows over the surf. Some mornings, distant islands appear to float in the mist. The frigid water is filled with fish. Its surface is dotted with bright red, yellow, and green lobster buoys, which makes Hog Island pastoral as well as wild.

Everything about Hog Island reminds me of Linny: the air, the loons, the limpets like tiny yarmulkes fastened to rocks, the twinflowers, the ospreys--and especially the smiles that rise on the faces of my boys when they discover something creeping beneath the seaweed. Their mother was a devoted environmental educator, who organized community treasure hunts and taught both high school ecology and sixth-grade math and science, sandwiched around 20 years at the Montshire Museum of Science, in Norwich, Vermont. She sang and played the guitar while making children curious about their home ground. She would have been happy that we are here and delighted that Casey has hooked up with Joe Rozak.

Rozak, a chemist and the chairman of the science department at Germantown Academy, in Philadelphia, teaches oceanography and plankton studies to the campers. His blond-and-gray hair sits atop a round, expressive face and balances a dark mustache--the long, thick kind that looks like plates of baleen hanging from his upper lip. (The very mustache I wish I could grow.) Rozak's passion for the ocean infects everyone. The water is 63 degrees Fahrenheit, too cold for me, but apparently not for either one of my boys. When he asks for a volunteer to hold the far end of a seine, a 10-foot-long net with a pair of handles, Casey strips to his bathing suit and old sneakers and plunges right in.

In solidarity, Jordy dunks himself in waist-deep water, then springs up smiling, seawater cascading down his face. He collects a dozen periwinkles. One of the coin-size snail shells is home to a hermit crab, a bonus that elicits a squeal of delight. After proudly showing off his catch, Jordy carefully puts each creature back on a suitable wet rock. I admire his unbridled excitement, keeping to myself the fact that periwinkles are almost as common as beach stones. Like a Buddhist monk, Jordy lives in the moment, his senses fully engaged. Right now his passion is Zen and the Art of Snail Collection. In five minutes it might be something else. Rachel Carson, whose favorite tidepools we visit later in the week, could have had Jordy in mind when she wrote, "A child's world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood."

For Jordy, it's important to touch living things, to touch the wildness here at Hog Island. He bonds with his world by catching and holding, looking with his fingers as well as his eyes. Although Linny and I taught him to respect living things, I'm disappointed, not distraught, if his overeager fingers roughly handle a green crab or a periwinkle. I lay no guilt at his doorstep. A crab's leg is a small price to pay for broadening a little boy's landscape. "Mama liked periwinkles, too," he says, totally at peace with the thought.

Meanwhile, Casey stretches out the seine and walks parallel to the shore, submersed first to his waist, then to his chest--mindful of sudden drop-offs. He steps, slips, slides, all the while flushing a conspiracy of life out of the nooks and crannies of unseen boulders and grassy plains.

When Rozak and Casey return to shore, the children gather around them. The weed-filled seine hides the hunted and the hunter and the hunter of the hunter. Everyone begins to mine the eelgrass for treasures of the sea: pop-eyed shrimp, periwinkles, crabs, whelks, starfish, a silver-dollar-size flounder with weird asymmetric eyes, a lumpfish, and a pipefish. Rozak flushes a worm--long, soft, and segmented--from the seine, places it in a bucket of water, and then reports, "Some marine worms explode if the salinity of their environment changes."

"Cool," blurts Jordy, eyes wide, trying to imagine a self-destructing worm.

The following morning, in an effort to find solitude, I rise early and walk down to the shore. The tide is dead low. Where Casey had seined, the rocks are completely exposed, their rough edges smoothed by a coif of knotted wrack. The sun creeps into the sky, bathes the world in ephemeral orange light. A man sits on the dock beneath the remnants of a silver moon, reading the Bible. A gull cries. It's been a while since a morning has seemed so perfect.

Walking by the tidepools, I begin to realize that the Hog Island experience has been more than expertly led activities on an enchanting island. People from across the country--the staff and the 41 campers, including grandparents (we had 3), parents, and 19 children--have become a large extended family. Jordy and Casey have allies in their pursuit of crabs. And I have adults to talk to.

There's Susan, who has breast cancer and asks about Linny's struggle. We swap stories about treatment. I tell her how Linny left the museum where she had worked for 20 years to return to the classroom to teach sixth-grade math and science, to be around kids for a full year, one last time. And there's Mark, an attorney in Florida and the father of 12-year-old Sam. Our boys swim together. At dinner one night I discover that Mark grew up in the same northern Kentucky town as my wife. Making the connection, his face ashen, he whispers her name. "We were buddies since kindergarten. Hell, we were high school lab partners in biology."

Later in the week, after dinner (the meals were great), Casey stands on his hands outside to impress a couple of girls but discovers instead a wasp with a shiny black, distinctly segmented abdomen that's four or five times longer than the rest of its body. He calls Jordy and me over. Together we watch the wasp rhythmically move its threadlike antenna up and down like a dowser searching for water. I think it is an ichneumon, and manage to quickly convince the boys. Casey catches the wasp and brings it to Don Quintez, the Hog Island forest-ecology instructor and an insect master. "It's a pelecinid wasp," he says, gently correcting me and at the same time reinforcing Casey's growing notion that Papa doesn't know everything.

Together, Quintez, Casey, and I head to the reference library. (Jordy is gone, more interested in the wasp than in an entomology book.) We read that it's a female pelecinid, a parasite that drills her long abdomen into the ground and lays her egg on the back of a June bug larva. And that she can smell if a larva has already been parasitized.

The next day, our last full day at family camp, we head to Eastern Egg Rock. Both boys wear binoculars--Casey, his mother's Leicas. Halfway out Muscongus Bay the captain steers close to a small island, a mere outcropping of rocks, where more than 50 harbor seals bask. Sort of like slugs with flippers, several seals ooze down the rocks, enter the water, and transform into Olympians, swimming with their heads above the surface, graceful and secure, big, black eyes staring. Cormorants and laughing gulls appear. Then a yellowlegs. No one knows what to look at first.

Although we've been warned that the puffins have dispersed for the winter, heading out to sea, the boys and I renew our hope for a sighting. It's a hope based on gut feelings rather than on empirical evidence, like the hope I have that my boys will rebound from the loss of their mother and grow into strong, sensitive adults. When our guide spots a pair of puffins coursing just over the chop in a blur of motion, we cheer. I'm happy for Jordy.

For Casey, too. Hog Island has inspired something lasting--a curiosity in nature that builds on itself. Two weeks after he returns to school, Casey interviews Rozak for an essay he writes about becoming a marine biologist. I ask him why. He smiles and says, "I have to have something fun to do when my baseball career is over."

 


Ted Levin has discovered that exploring the outdoors with his sons has cultivated not only two nature enthusiasts but avid advisers on the five children's books he has co-written.

 

© 2002  NASI

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