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December 18, 2014
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A valley so green; Where summertime campers learn about the environment

Local sportsmen’s clubs in Sullivan County volunteer to help teach fishing skills and hunter safety, as campers learn to appreciate time-honored outdoor pursuits.
Photos courtesy of DEC


LIVINGSTON MANOR, NY — Summer camps come in all shapes and sizes, from those offering the traditional experience (recreation, arts and crafts, games and activities) to specialized camps focused on a particular interest (the performing arts, or science education, or instruction in a sport, etc.).

Right here in our own backyard, New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) runs a specialized environmental camp focused on bringing the outdoor experience to 11- through 13-year-olds. Eight miles east of Livingston Manor, NY, Camp DeBruce is located adjacent to the Catskill Forest Preserve, two miles from Mongaup State Park and right next to Mongaup Creek. It is the oldest of four environmental education camps operated by DEC (www.dec.ny.gov/education/29.html) and the greenest—literally, according to Randy Caccia, DEC’s camps administrator, pointing out its rural field and forest setting.

The website (www.dec.ny.gov/education/1881.html) tells how “campers learn science, solve challenges, play games, keep a journal, catch salamanders, net butterflies and discover the interconnectedness of life on earth... and [learn about the] human impact on the environment.”

“The purpose of our environmental education camps is to give more experience and awareness of the out of doors to our campers,” Caccia explained. “We offer hands-on experience for kids to learn about forest, stream, field and wildlife ecology.

“With this age group we have an eager audience,” he continued. “They’re wondering about the world around them and wanting to explore it. They’re excited to learn about the outdoors and come wanting to know about the environment.

“These are new experiences for many of them. We have campers who have never really seen the stars at night, gone hiking in a forest, or gone fishing.”

Camp DeBruce is best described as rustic but with modern amenities—electricity, showers, flush toilets and camper cabins. During each session, the campers also leave their home base to go out for one overnight.

The camp’s 300 acres includes different terrains and ecosystems, providing many learning opportunities. Once a private estate and fish hatchery, Camp DeBruce was acquired in the 1940s by DEC, which converted it into a conservation education camp. From the very beginning, Camp DeBruce has had a long-standing partnership with the Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs of Sullivan County, whose member/volunteers teach hunting safety and fly fishing at the camp. So many help out that the ratio of campers to volunteers is often nearly one-to-one, Caccia reported. The clubs also provide stipends and scholarships to help pay for some of the campers to attend. Sixty percent are sponsored by sportsmen’s clubs, Caccia reports.

Campers go through a series of planned programs, learning about field, forest and aquatic ecology, but 90% of the environmental learning experience is done in the field. If the campers are learning about fishing, they’re going to get their hands wet in the stream, Caccia said. “We do a lot of backdoor education, sneaking in the education part. So if we’re doing fishing classes, we ask, ‘What’s in the fish’s diet?’ or ‘Would the same bait we’re using now be good in August?’ If we’re taking a hike in the woods, it becomes a forestry lesson.” Other activities include a tour of a nearby hatchery and a hike to a waterfall.

During their stay, campers also participate in a large town-hall meeting where everyone gets together to discuss an environmental issue, including its pros and cons.

“We keep the topic to something the kids can relate to,” Caccia said. “For example, DeBruce has this famous old racetrack. It’s a half mile loop that’s always kept mowed. So we might talk about the impact of turning it back into a race track.”

College-educated counselor staff who have studied in the natural sciences, education or recreation fields, lead all activities. Counselors also have a high level of first aid and CPR training to prevent or respond to any emergency. “Our counselors get to relate their experiences with campers, and when they share their excitement, the campers get excited, too,” Caccia reported.

Camping sessions fill up early, and many campers have such a good time, they come back again. When they age out of camp for 11- to 13-year-olds, DEC offers sessions at its other camps that accept teens up to age 17. Of these older campers, Caccia says, “We ask them to hike harder, accept more challenges and to think more.”

This kind of fun and educational environmental and conservation camp adds a whole new dimension to the summer camp experience for many who come here—something many of the participants will remember all their lives.