T32 MD, Maine — A throng of eager eaters crowded around an outdoor cooking station on Wednesday as Laura Kamorski, assistant director of the Maine Youth Fish and Game Association’s summer camp, kept repeating her stock safety message.
“Stay outside the ring of fire,” she said, referring to a line of orange spray paint on the forest floor that only cooking campers were supposed to step inside.
At least, it sounded like a safety message to some.
To others, it sounded like a cue.
“I fell into a burning ring of fire,” one young camper responded with a smile, reciting the Johnny Cash lyric. “I can’t stop singing that song.”
This week, the second of four weeks of the popular summer camp, belongs to children age 8 through 11. Kids age 12-15 have two weeks of their own.
Jim Winslow, the second-year director of the camps, said his goal is to expose the campers to a variety of outdoor activities in the hope they’ll find something they truly enjoy.
“I think there’s so much to do in the outdoors in Maine, and I think that every kid doesn’t always have the opportunity to see a wide range of activities or see what Maine has to offer,” Winslow said. “Because of that, a lot of them get stuck on cell phones, video games, and really, we’re just trying to combat that.”
The camp is a tech-free zone — the rules were outlined on this year’s application form — though the rules are sometimes softened for the older campers when they stay overnight at the facility about 11 miles from downtown Old Town.
Not that anybody was complaining about their missing phones on Wednesday, mind you.
The campers were too busy cooking. And eating. And fishing. And trying their hands at archery. And competing in a fire-building contest. And learning about trapping from real Maine trappers.
Thomas Eriksen, an 8-year-old camper with an impressive mop of unruly hair, was all smiles at the outdoor kitchen as he explained the culinary masterpiece he was waiting to finish cooking.
“It’s a s’mores ice cream cone,” Eriksen said. “It’s an ice cream cone, but it has no ice cream. Marshmallows, [breakfast] cereal — two different kinds — and caramel sauce.”
Then, wrap the whole dessert in aluminum foil, pop it on the grill grate over the sizzling fire, and wait eight to 11 minutes.
Also on the menu: Pigs-in-a-blanket, cooked (of course) on sticks, and another gooey delectable called a banana boat.
“The banana is cut in half, and you put in mini marshmallows, chocolate chips and Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and then you melt it,” 10-year-old Stella Damon explained.
Damon spent much of the morning at the campfire cooking station, working her way through all three pre-lunch snacks. Her pig-in-a-blanket came out a bit burnt, she said, but each of the two sweet treats turned out well.
Damon said she has also enjoyed learning to shoot a rifle, and earned a sharp-shooting award earlier in the week.
And she eagerly recited the slogan of her group of campers — the Foxes — which is proudly emblazoned on their bright orange flag.
“Foxes, foxes, think outside the boxes,” she said.
Some kids sought help from their counselors, but the staffers did their best to try to encourage independence, even around the ring of fire.
One camper didn’t quite know how to go about cooking his pig-in-a-blanket, but Kamorski knew he could solve the problem himself.
“I want you to figure it out,” she said. “You’re your own personal chef.”
Empowered, the camper thrust his stick into the fire, determined to cook his snack, or burn it to a crisp, his own way.
Over on the archery range, Colin Melrose, 10, consistently hit the target with his shots, but was a bit dismayed when he added up the point totals for his shots.
“Wow,” he said. “My accuracy has decreased.”
A day earlier, he had scored 29 points. On Wednesday, the total was 21. But Melrose didn’t seem too bothered, and was still smiling.
Bodie Peterson, 10, came off Pickerel Pond with a 9 1/2-inch brook trout, and after hauling his canoe out of the water, headed straight to the fish-cleaning station.
“I gutted it, vacuum-sealed it, and put it in the fridge,” he reported later. And when someone asked him how long a trout had to be in order to be legally kept, the young angler showed he’d learned his lessons well.
“They have to be six inches or more, and you can only keep two a day,” he said.
The variety of activities gives campers a chance to structure their own experience, Winslow said.
“We have some kids that may not like anything, but they really love ATV safety [class]. They may not like anything, but all they want to do is go kayak and not even fish,” Winslow said. “[This is] just exposing them to anything and everything, and help them find their little niche where they’re going to enjoy it. So that hopefully becomes a hobby.”
And when it comes to outdoor activities, the options are nearly limitless at the camp, the director said.
“Opportunities are endless here. I think, really, if you have a good imagination, you can do just about anything here,” Winslow said. “This is our first year doing outdoor cooking. I think it’s a hit. Kids just love it. Last year, we did shelter-building. They had to go out in the woods and build a shelter.”
The results were impressive, he said.
“It was great. Kids were out getting scratches, playing with sticks, building things,” he said. “And I think that’s what kids should be doing in the summer. Being outside, and just learning. Naturally.”