By Jana Seitz

I have the greatest summer job. For six weeks I get to immerse teenagers in the great outdoors. They arrive each morning at the Rye Nature Center for Paddle Adventure Camp and we return them safely each evening, filthy dirty and happy. Sleepy boys and girls of all shapes, sizes, and temperaments appear, clutching backpacks and waiting to awaken. We hop in a big passenger van or minivan, depending on our group size, crank on some tunes, and hit the road. I’ve subjected them to everything from New Orleans funk to African instrumentals; other counselors, to sci-fi podcasts. We generally don’t speak much before we arrive at our day’s destination. They wake up slowly as I do with my Mommy Morning Caffeine Show and focus on “safety first”. Some days I drive a pickup truck and trailer with kayaks, as we alternate hiking trips with kayaking. I’ve forgotten mid-trip which vehicle I’m driving and have had to adjust accordingly. (Don’t strap the kids on the trailer; don’t take the trailer on the Taconic.)

There’s great adventure to be had within an hour’s drive of home, and we’ve found our share. The “we” of Paddle Adventure Camp consists of an incredibly knowledgeable team: Friends of Rye Nature Center’s Christine Siller (Executive Director), Taro Ietako (Conservation Director), Courtney Rothaus, AJ Johnson, and Henry Myers. They are naturalists, biologists, environmental scientists, and horticulturalists who’ve also become lifeguards and kayakers for this program.

We’ve paddled The Hudson River, Long Island Sound, and connected the dots of the Croton River from the reservoir to the dam to the Hudson. We’ve hiked the Hudson Highlands, the Bear Mountain area, and Cranberry Lake to find the quarry where the rock that built the Kensico Dam came from.

We’ve learned about Revolutionary action in the 1770s and the importance of the history of the Hudson Valley. They’ve listened to me read from my sepia-toned histories of everything from Bannerman’s Island to Playland, heard Taro’s ghost stories about Leatherman, a recluse who lived in a cave in Pound Ridge, found “wiccan” shelters and altars, lean-to’s and cairns. My incredibly informative co-counselors have taught us about mushrooms, plants, flowers, ant behavior, birds, and bugs.

During our 30 trips, we’ve picked and eaten sun-warmed berries, made our own s’mores on the heat of the dashboard, and had treats at the best sweet shops in the county. Caught crayfish, frogs, butterflies, and sunfish. Seen beaver dams and trees felled with fresh teeth marks. Found snakeskins, cicada husks, and feathers. Cleaned trash out of Blind Brook. Visited with painters <en plein air>. Discussed politics, zombies, zombie politics, architecture, travel, cooking, cultural differences, books, video games, and rap music (old is better than new).

We’ve talked to Appalachian Trail through-walkers who’d been on the road for months. Watched fire ants wage war on black ants, stealing their eggs and plundering their homes. Played in waterfalls, trudged in kayaks through overgrown water chestnut, heard the noon bells at West Point as their helicopters hovered above us in training. Had a bald eagle fly right by us at the top of Anthony’s Nose. Watched a hail and lightning storm from the safety of our van with the doors open and music blasting. Dunked our heads and feet in cold streams. Painted over graffiti on rocky cliffs in gray/brown tones to mask it. Painted our faces and bodies in river mud for “sunscreen.” Played soccer under weeping willows. Rappelled in and out of a gorge. Worn mugwort branches in our hats to ward off mosquitos. Learned to read trail maps and markers the hard way, by getting lost. Found petroglyphs left by Lipan natives. Ascended 1,000 feet in half a mile. Learned that bullying doesn’t occur in the outdoors (unless you’re riding shotgun and play “Despacito” — again — on the radio).

We’ve encountered potential dangers too — copperheads and thunderstorms. Learned of bridge jumpers and hikers who died on paths we walked, and of the foolishness of people who got out of their boats to walk in rather than wait for the tide to turn. We’ve felt more acutely the deaths of unknown soldiers who perished in a plane crash in an obscure bean field in Mississippi, far from their homes in the Hudson Valley. We’ve learned to be prepared and to think in order to elude danger, rather than be afraid.

A week has now passed since the end of camp, and I’m almost my other self again after a pedicure, a massage, and a trip to the beauty parlor. I’m still too feral to eat indoors or make polite conversation with adults. But my teen-age self reigns supreme.

Captions

Hudson River at Little Stony Point in Cold Spring

Cooling off in the Doodletown stream

Falling in line at Ward Pound Ridge Preserve

Chillin’ in Milton Harbor