"If you know the natural world, you'll protect it."
That's one of basic principles of Family Nature Summit, a non-profit nature and adventure camp that's been attracting outdoor people of all ages since 1970.
Every year, a group of summiteers gathers at a different spot in the United States for a week to hike, swim, raft, bird, learn about flowers and butterflies, and even read about nature. The emphasis is on staying in comfortable places with outstanding beauty. Their anchors over the years seem to have been YMCA of the Rockies just outside Rocky Mountain National Park and Blue Ridge Assembly, a YMCA close to the Blue Ridge Parkway about 20 minutes from Asheville, North Carolina.
But Summits have been held all over the country; they've been staged at Sequoia, North Cascades, Yellowstone, Pictured Rocks, and even Hawai'i Volcanoes national parks. The locations alternate between west of the Mississippi and east of the Mississippi. Volunteers spend the whole year planning a full range of activities.
Chris Blank, a lawyer from California, is president of Family Summits' board of directors. He started attending Summits in 1994 when his boys were seven and nine years old.
"It's rare that older children would want to go on vacation with their parents," Mr. Blank says. "But here they don't hang around with their parents. My boys had a wonderful time and made lifelong friendships. They have become environmental stewards at the Summits."
Now in college, his sons are in the young adult group, hiking, adventure racing, and geocaching. As they put it, "we're doing stuff you never get to do the rest of the year."
When I thought about taking my granddaughter, Hannah, to a nature experience, I looked at the various intergenerational offerings but realized that we would be both doing the same activities all day. She's eight years old now and I'm an active hiker. That meant that if she hiked four miles, I would only hike four miles for the day -- that is, if the group even walked that far.
But at Family Summits, the whole family doesn't do the same thing. That's what made it so appealing to me. Like traditional summer camp, everybody goes with their own age group.
This is how it works:
After breakfast, I dropped Hannah with her Junior Naturalist group, this year with children from Kindergarten to second grade. Her counselors were elementary school science educators. This past year at the YMCA of the Ozarks, they hiked, swam, canoed, and built a birdhouse. One day, they visited Onondoga Cave and learned about trout in the stream. The third to sixth grade group also did orienteering.
While Hannah was with her age group, I was with my "age group." I hiked, went caving, and geocached with a GPS. At 3:30 pm, the formal programs end and children are picked up. We might then swim or explore a section of the extensive grounds. One afternoon Hannah wanted to finish her nature art project or she just played with a friend while I blogged. If I couldn't get back to camp in time, she went to daycare where the fun continued.
After dinner, we joined the evening program: square dancing, a program by a bird rescue group or a slide show on flowers of the area. One evening, area crafters were invited to display their woodworkings, weavings, and handmade jewelry. The last night is always skit night. All the groups from the preschoolers to college students put on a short program -- this is camp, after all.
Steve Houser a teacher of gifted children in elementary school, near Charlotte, North Carolina, is director of the Junior Naturalist program. He provides the continuity in the program; this past summer was his 26th Summit.
"I hope that the Summits pass on environmental education to the next generation," he explains. "It's an opportunity to spend a week with those who care about the environment. The children support each other in something as simple as recycling. Here they're being exposed to high-caliber people in the natural world and renew acquaintances as well."
This is a real intergenerational group. This past summer, the oldest person, over 85 years old, went on flower walks and learned how to use a GPS. There are always families with babies in arms. The group stays at "Y" facilities and sometimes at resorts. You're not roughing it or camping. Meals are good and you room with your family. And if it rains, as it often does, that's part of the adventure.
Family Summits might be a bit of a misnomer. You can come as part of an extended family and many are part of three generations. Or you can come just by yourself; you don't need to have a family to enjoy the Summits. Active adults and singles have a wonderful time and are not by themselves when they get here.
Dave Linthincum, who lives outside of Washington, D.C., is a geographer at the U.S. State Department who works on international boundaries. He was hired to do map and compass work and now teaches orienteering and GPS as well. He's been coming back since the 1980s. Dave met his partner at Family Summits where she's the leader for the young adult group. They're one of several Summit romances.
"The summits have a unique format. It segregates one week out of the 52 weeks of the year," Mr. Linthincum says. "Kind of inside the beltway from outside the beltway. By the first day, everyone is relaxed and ready to dig into the subject matter. For active adults, there's kayaking, crawling through caves, rafting, walking upstream like Shut-in Creek in the Ozarks, and meeting mental and physical challenges. Even in a butterfly class, you're expected to walk two miles. That's the Summit norm."
Family Summits works well for single parents, especially single women; they feel comfortable here and meet a variety of people. Jessica Chang, an orthodontist from New York City and single mother, has been coming for the past nine years. Now she almost never sees her daughter Ariel during the week, who at age 12, is in the young teen program.
"I never thought I'd come to the Ozarks. They make it OK and safe. They have organized events and bring in local experts. These people are my surrogate family. I would come even without my daughter," Ms. Chang said before she took off for a ropes course
Some come back year after year just to bird. They depend on the leadership of Brete Griffin, a science teacher from Toronto, who's an award-winning birder. "Summits are about meeting old friends all over the country. We go to different places each year and find new birds in new places and everything that goes with them - butterflies, reptiles, and wildflowers."
With all this emphasis on making lifelong friends, you'd think it would be difficult to break in as a newbie. But every Summiteer wears a bandana that lets others know many years you've been coming. Your first year, you get a yellow bandana. More experienced Summiteers go out of their way to greet you, show you the ropes, and invite you to join their table at mealtime. If this is your second through four years, you get a green bandana, and so on through the color spectrum.
This one-week camp manages to live under the radar of better known commercial and other nonprofit activities. Most summiteers learn about it by word of mouth. The Summits were started by National Wildlife Federation in 1970 but in 2006, the organization decided to pull out because it didn't fit their mission anymore. The Federation wanted to reach millions of people, while most Summits attract about 350 people. Instead of letting the yearly Summit die, Chris and his boys discussed what this one week a year meant to them. Chris mobilized others and created the nonprofit organization.
The Summits are a bit of a fantasyland, with more activities than you could do in a month, great people, and comfortable surroundings.
Want To Join Us In 2012?
Next year we can look forward to:
* A chance to bag more than one 14,000 footer peak
* Alpine naturalist, alpine meadow ecology
* Rock climbing on rocks, not just a climbing wall
* Whitewater rafting
* Sit and smell the air and enjoy it.
As Mr. Blank says, "Whether you're a family or by yourself, come - you won't regret it."