Judy Juncker of Gloucester, Mass., was taking summer graduate courses at College of Atlantic on Mount Desert Island when she and two fellow students brought the idea of a family nature camp to then-COA Director of Summer Programs Ted Koffman, who made their idea into a successful program in 1990.
“Families would ask us from the very beginning, ‘Where do I drop the kids off when I go play golf?’” said Koffman, now executive director of Maine Audubon. “We’d say, ‘No. This is for the whole family. The family to be learning together.’”
All camp coordinators are naturalists who specialize in biology, zoology or geology. When they bring families on outdoor excursions, they teach about the observable wildlife, catering to all ages.
During the last week of camp in 2010, coordinators Judy Juncker, Doug Hawk of Harrisburg, Pa., Fred Zerega of Windham, N.Y., and Margaret Fey of Syracuse, N.Y., took turns leading activities and educating the campers.
It had been a week of creatures. The families spotted 10 whales on a whale watch. Fey brought campers to observe four beavers building a lodge; Hawk led them on a hike of Dorr Mountain; and Zerega took them to the tidal pools of Wonderland.
“It’s about bringing all age groups together,” said Juncker. “We planned it for families to do together. No activity is just for the little kids. And we stayed true to that.”
“[Families] arrived from all over the country,” Koffman said of the first year of camp. “The kids making friends with kids all over the country, playing sports and climbing around in the trees right away. Parents get some relief as they talk with other parents and don’t have to cook or even go to a restaurant.
“Within two days of the first week, we knew we had a success. We could feel the enthusiasm, and the families were coming up to us and thanking us.”
Families enjoy visiting Maine for a week on the coast for a modest price, Koffman said. Boat rides leave from the COA campus pier. Families are shuttled to camp activities and can use a free bus to embark on their own adventures.
“It’s really designed for families and family pocketbooks,” said Koffman.
Several campers are veterans to the program. For the Gumpert family, it started in 1995 when Mike Gumpert of Pennsylvania was given a brochure about the camp and presented it to his wife and two children. They planned to attend the next year.
“We came up here and really enjoyed ourselves,” said Peggy Gumpert, 56, “Each year we do more difficult hikes. It’s kind of neat, as a returning family, you have more options in this program than a first-year family.”
The family hikes at home, but they said that the trails in Pennsylvania are nothing compared with those on MDI.
“Truly they don’t compare,” said Mike Gumpert.
“Every year we learn and take something home that we didn’t before,” Peggy Gumpert said.
Over the years, the Gumperts have met families from all over the country. When they became close friends with a New Jersey family and a Florida family, they started coordinating what week the three families would come to camp each year.
“It’s almost like a reunion,” said Emily Gumpert, 23, who started attending the camp with her family when she was 8 years old and her younger brother, Scott, was 6.
“When you had repeat customers, those customers became part of the culture,” said Koffman. “These kids would grow up over the years with this being an expectation.”
The camp instructors keep coming back as well.
“I forget [home] life for a while,” said camp instructor Sister Margaret Fey. “When I’m here, it’s so bizarre, I lose touch with everything.”
For information about the College of the Atlantic Family Nature Camp, visit http://www.coa.edu/famnatcamp.htm or call Jean Silvia at 800-597-9500.