Observing Ridge Runners

Six and seven-year-olds up to their necks in creek water, exercising control over their vocal cords to keep the scene as naturally-serene as possible. Bug nets swooping through algae-filled creek water, searching for water bugs to find out how healthy the creek water really was. Munching on sandwiches and snacks under the oak trees, surrounded by the beauty of green foliage and yellow meadows. This is Ridge Runners camp.Eric Nicholas, City of Pleasanton naturalist, runs this summer camp with a philosophy that incorporates his adventurous childhood into a fun, engaging camp that teaches the value, beauty, and wonder of nature to children ages 6-11. As a child, Nicholas's parents would send him outside to play after school, a locked screen door keeping him out. He chose to explore the natural world around him. When he was older, he spent three years living in various wilderness settings. He'd learn how to survive in different environments from elders at Indian reservations and put their advice into practice, living off of the land based on what he'd been taught. Once he felt comfortable with the methods, he'd return to the same reservations to teach the children about their environment and how their ancestors had lived there. It's no wonder he knows so much about the natural world. Beyond merely knowing, though, he has a passion for teaching others. He also realizes there is a disconnection today between children and nature due to the fundamentally-changed society that causes worry when children explore unsupervised (check out Richard Louv's Last Child in the Woods), and also understands that there is a reason parents fear letting their children out. But more importantly, he understands that children need nature for healthy development--and for a healthy perspective on the natural world. His camp is a way for kids to get out and see a world that is not always easily available to them--one that opens their eyes to the very world we originate from--but with supervision that keeps parents from worrying.

Nicholas asked me to write an article on the day camp, so one Thursday I drove to Sunol-Ohlone Regional Wilderness, part of the East Bay Regional Park District. The day started off at 8:45 at a picnic area within the park, shaded by oak trees. I met the 6 teen counselors when my mom dropped me off and noticed that each wore a decorated t-shirt with their name and a certain animal. Each counselor had a group: dragon flies, tree frogs, hawks, gray foxes, songbirds, and hummingbirds. Parents dropped their kids off during the next 15 minutes, and once a large enough group had accumulated, the counselors began a game. Each kid would think of a living thing. When the counselor said an attribute that the kid's living thing had, they would try to make it across the picnic area without being tagged. The kids had a blast, and it was neat to see which things they'd pick and how much they'd know about particular animals or plants. Once that game was tired out, they sang some songs they all knew and then everyone stood in a circle and played "down by the banks." Each time the rhyme ended, someone got out and stood inside the "pond." When the pond got too full of kids, some of them would "migrate" and allow more space inside the shrinking "pond." Those kids were sure having fun.

Eric Nicholas arrived and rounded everyone up. It was time to grab a snack and water bottle and head out to the visitor center. After a bathroom break, a snack break, and an reminder on being polite guests, everyone headed into the green two-roomed building that is the Sunol-Ohlone Regional Wilderness visitor center.The first room housed glass boxes filled with various animals found in the park. Snakes (California king, North Pacific (Western) rattlesnake), frogs, a Western pond turtle, a black widow spider, a tarantula—all the creepy crawlies that kids love to look at. Along one wall, nature books and visitor center knickknacks sat upon a shelf and along another, pamphlets about safety and the different animals in the area. A glass display cabinet held a stuffed owl and an owl pellet, arrowheads and other artifacts from the Ohlone Indians who once inhabited the surrounding land. I'd like to visit again sometime and look through the books and pamphlets.

The Sunol-Ohlone Regional Wilderness naturalist Anthony Fisher brought everyone into the other room, which was decorated with cow skulls and a large magnetic illustration of a creek. He sat on a small stool beside the creek mural and asked the children, now seated on the floor, to tell him what they had seen that week at camp. Nine-year-old Maddy raised her hand and said they had seen mama and baby Mallard ducks. Fisher told the kids that ducks lay about 12 eggs and that as they hatch and begin spending time with their mom, each day there are less and less ducklings. So the baby duckling they saw was one of many--the only one who had survived. Poor ducklings.Another kid told Fisher that they had seen mating dragonflies. Fisher pulled out two of the magnets and slapped them onto the board above where the water was. One was a dragonfly, the other a damselfly. He asked the kids which they had seen. Damselfly, they said. He told them that damselflies inject their eggs into plant stems and that the baby damselflies crawl out of the plant when they're hatched. Dragonflies, he said, suck water up through their back end and then shoot it out quickly to move through the water.
(Above is a dragonfly. Below is a damselfly.)The kids had also seen deer bones (Fisher took this opportunity to make a joke: "Sounds like the beginning of a letter, 'Dear Bones, I saw you in the park. Some of you were missing...'" He got a laugh at that one.), and a hare. Fisher asked if the campers knew the difference between a hare and a rabbit. "Hares are born with their eyes open and are ready to go in a few hours, while rabbits are born with their eyes closed and they take a little bit before they're ready to get moving," he explained. In scientific terms, hares are precocial and rabbits are altricial. The kids also said they saw a turtle with a silver shell. While of course Fisher knew what they meant, that it wasn't really made of silver, that it only looked silver, he asked how it could swim with such a heavy shell. He said they should have melted it down since silver is so valuable. Funny guy--he definitely made the lesson interesting.
Hare or rabbit?

He then went into the different bugs that live in the creek that they were going to be catching in a few minutes. Which insect species are surviving in the creek can show the health of the creek water. If it is polluted and warm, only certain species can survive there. Too many of those and not enough of those who require cool, clean water show that the creek's unhealthy. We walked out to the creek behind the visitor center, each child toting a net after being told not to smash the bugs or leave rocks overturned (You don't want to fry those little guys that live under rocks, Fisher said.). We spotted a rock with some cupules ground into it, a sign of where acorns were once ground by Native American Indians (see Acorn Harvesting). Kids began at the creek's edge, afraid to get wet. But once one brave soul waded through the algae-filled waters, most of them trod in, soaking their tennis shoes and swiping their nets, looking for insects. We spotted little frogs hopping through the water, but they weren't supposed to catch amphibians or minnows--just the invertebrates.

A few buckets on the rocky bank began to fill up with water bugs: damselflies, snails, toe-biters and skeletons of toe-biters. Once there were enough bugs to fill the observation boxes, Fisher had everyone gather in a big circle and look at the different bugs. A toe-biter was eating a damselfly. Crawdads, mayflies, giant water bugs, and an awesome caddis fly that had built its own home were hanging out in the little magnifying-glass containers that were passed around. I turned to the little girl sitting next to me, Lindsay, and asked her if she likes bugs. She does. "My mom used to study bugs," she told me, and she says she maybe wants to study bugs when she grows up. According to Fisher's chart, 17-22 is good stream quality. Based on the bugs they'd found, the creek was doing well.

Nicholas had asked me to interview some of the campers for the article, so on the way back to the picnic tables for lunch, I spoke with Catherine, whose father, interestingly enough, had been my world history teacher two years ago. It's Catherine's first year at Ridge Runners. "I decided I want to do it again and again and again!" she told me, jumping up and down in her High School Musical t-shirt. (According to her, she's High School Musical's biggest fan.)

After some lunch, I sat down with blonde-haired Maddy, the girl who'd told Anthony Fisher about the Mallard ducks. This is her third year at Ridge Runners, and she can't wait until she's 12 so she can become a Counselor in Training (CIT). You have to be 15 1/2 to become a counselor (and you don't have to be a CIT beforehand). I asked her why she wants to be a counselor when she's old enough, and she told me it's because she likes playing with kids. Her favorite camp day is Thursday because she likes to go in the creek and catch bugs.

Paige, whose been coming to Ridge Runners for four years, likes Thursday the best because of what comes after lunch--a hike through, yes through, the creek. She wants to be a counselor so she can teach kids about animals because she wants to become a naturalist like Eric when she grows up (and I don't blame her--it's a cool job!).

So after everyone's bellies were full and their water bottles were in hand, we sat on a picnic table to listen to Nicholas discussing safety and rules for hiking the creek. Aside from the normal safety precautions--don't step on large rocks because they're slippery, don't touch the saw grass because it cuts your hand--Nicholas told the kids not to talk. At all. He wanted the creek to be as serene and natural as possible. He separated those who he knew would talk and asked that counselors keep the campers quiet. He also told kids not to step on water animals ("Frogs frown on having people's feet on their heads."). And finally, he asked what the most dangerous animal in the creek today would be. The answer was us. We could cause the most harm, so it was important to remember not to damage the animals and plants. After everyone picked up three pieces of trash and Nicholas tied Maddy's stuffed animal seal to his backpack so he could come along, too, we set off up the dirt trail.

We crossed a shallow creek, forcing us all to get our shoes nice and squishy wet. Then up a hill and down again until we cut through some grass to the part where we'd go into the creek. I had left my notebook and backpack at the picnic area, so as I saw things I wanted to remember, I needed a way to keep track of them all. A cattail leaf looked just right for inscribing on. I used my fingernail to write letters to remind me of what I was seeing. A - ants. There were tons of ants crawling all over a set of fallen, dried cattails. B - barnacles. Strange barnacle-looking things were attached to rocks in shallow waters. I wondered what they were. C - cattails. They were everywhere! I love cattails--they're so beautifully shaped. D - damselflies. Nicholas showed us a stem that a newborn damselfly had crawled out of. There were damselflies all around us, some mating, others just flying around. F - flowers. Floating on top of the water were these lovely pink flowers. I wish I could give them a better name, but I don't know what they were. M - mint. Mint plants were EVERYWHERE! Eventually I had to pick one little leaf and crush it between my hands. It smelled so good! P - pink plant. There was some sort of pink weedy plant that was flattened beneath the water. It was almost grassy how it flowed with the water. I have no idea what it was. The cattail leaf is now dry and stiff and the letters are hard to read, but you can discern some indentations. I definitely would not have remembered all of those little things without it.

I was at the back of the line most of the way so I could observe things at a slower pace. I only slipped once or twice and at the deepest point, the water went to a little above my belly-button. For some of the kids, like little Clare with her rainbow hat, it reached to their collar bones. At a wading pool near the end of the hike, all the campers dunked their heads. I was fine being only partially drenched and kept my head above water.

The hike finished around 3 o'clock and as we rounded the bend back to the picnic tables, we could see parents waiting for their little campers, who were all dripping wet and grinning.

Aside from the fact that these kids got to have fun by dunking their heads in water and wading through a creek, they also learned about nature's ways and were able to explore just beyond their safety zone enough to have adventure. Luka, age 9, put it this way: "Eric shows you all of this stuff you wouldn't have noticed before...you get to see wildlife and get exercise--it's better than sitting in a building." I agree, and I sure wish my mom had signed me up for this camp when I was a kid.


  1. Excellent post! I can just picture being there and seeing the kids learn about the creek and the natural surroundings. I love the comment that humans are the most dangerous animal there.

    Kudos to Eric Nicholas for a great program and to Melissa for capturing it so well!


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