“I couldn’t really get the purples since the bumblebee was working on it,” said Ben Goldstein, 7, of Bar Harbor, referring to the lilacs he wanted to collect for his new nature journal.

“Yesterday I got some green from the leaves and brown from the dirt,” said Ben as he rubbed a dandelion on the first page, creating a vivid yellow streak. “I see pineapple weed, like, everywhere. They give me a very, very light green.”

He sat down on the lawn of College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor with a field studies group — three other children and two instructors who would join him for a week of exploring extreme habitats on Mount Desert Island.

“We operate on the basis of experiential learning. Hopefully, exposing them to these experiences will cultivate an environmental stewardship for themselves,” said Jasmine Smith, co-director of COA Summer Field Studies.

It was Tuesday, and the children were visiting Wonderland.

“Wonderland is a place near the sea wall that takes you through northern boreal forest and pigmy forest to a rocky bluff,” said Smith, noting that the children will see a transformation of species as they travel through the area.

Ben ran across the lawn and beckoned for me to come look at the Juneberries hanging from tall bushes bordering the grass. He carefully selected a red berry that he said looked ripe.

“Ben ate like 20 yesterday,” said Quincy Rozeff, 8, of Bar Harbor. “He’s the only one that likes eating them.”

They tasted like blueberries, and I decided I liked them too.

Each field study group has a van, such as the “Magic School Bus.” Ben, Quincy, Heather Phelps, 7, of Bar Harbor and Danielle Leduc, 9, of Bar Harbor hopped into their van with instructor River Black, 21, a COA student from San Francisco, and instructor Shelley Friedmann, 22, of Bar Harbor — and they were off to the oppo-site end of the island.

A gray blanket of clouds shut out the sun. None of the children mentioned the gloom.

As they hiked through Wonderland, the group played games in which they pretended an earthquake, mudslide, flash flood or volcano eruption occurred. They ran to the side of the trail or grabbed onto a tree to avoid being swept away.

Once, I failed to flee in time. Ben turned and said, “You’re going to be fine as long as you have the right gear. You have the right gear with you, don’t you?”

He lagged behind the group for most of the short hike, inspecting plants and sometimes placing leaves and pine needles in his curly, blond hair for camouflage.

They paused for a shrinking-habitats game, in which each child played a different animal. They stood inside a rope circle while the instructor shrank the perimeter to symbolize urban sprawl, clear-cutting and the gulf oil spill. Shoes came off as the children attempted to squeeze closer together.

“The octopus just barely survived,” said Ben the octopus. “His habitat kept disappearing.”

On the beach, they sat down for lunch, and instructor River handed out wild peas she found growing on the edge of the forest.

“Here’s some news: There’s, like, a million sand fleas around here,” said Ben, sitting down amid the rocks and pebbly sand.

“This rock I could lay on. It’s so comfortable,” said Heather, stretching out on a flat rock to eat. After lunch, she and Quincy toted around blue nets and searched for fish and crabs in the tidal pools. Gray waves crashed against the buffering rocks.

Ben whistled as we left the beach to hike back to the parking lot. “I like the sound of the ocean and seeing all the big waves and all the sea creatures and things like that,” he said. “And skipping rocks — my record is seven.”

The group stopped at a wintergreen patch to chew on the small leaves that taste like the white Lifesavers. Heather sat midtrail and used crayons to make leaf rubbings in her journal.

“The journals are pretty fun. I didn’t think they’d be this fun,” she said. “My dad’s coming home, and I want to surprise him with this.”

“I like all the field trips,” said Ben. “It’s usually to the beach or something like that. Today, it was Wonderland.”

For information about the College of the Atlantic summer field study program, call 207-288-5015, ext. 5840, or e-mail sfs@coa.egu.


Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com.