This will be simple, I assured myself. I am large and hairy and capable of simulating a deep, authoritative voice.
They are 11 years old and fully aware that their teachers will be staying in a cabin trailer 150 feet from theirs.
“Come get us if you have any trouble,” the teachers told the adult counselors. “Any trouble at all.”
Hah. Who do they think they’re dealing with? How tough can it be, managing a bunkhouse full of sixth-grade boys from Bakersfield?
One word came to mind as I was getting acquainted with my nine newly assigned charges, the kids who would be my bunkmates for the next week in our electricity- and heat-deprived trailer.
The revulsion passed, though. Really. An hour or so into my five-day tenure as a counselor at Camp KEEP Ocean, the environmental-education program for Kern County tweens at Montaña de Oro State Park, near Los Osos, I was actually starting to enjoy some of them.
Not that there weren’t a few moments of quiet desperation. And not-so-quiet desperation.
At about 3 a.m. that first night, a flashlight fell from a student’s upper bunk with a jolting clatter — right into my forehead.
I’d been awake anyway, lying there wondering whether I should plod through the mud to the toilet or try to hold out till dawn. Decision made: As long as I was getting up, I could squint blearily into the boys-room mirror and see if the welt was visible yet.
Our trailer group, designated the “Whales,” pulled dining-room duty that first morning. After emerging en masse into the world at 7 a.m., we stumbled to the toilets, brushed teeth, splashed some water on ourselves and then went straight to the dome — KEEP’s tarp-cocooned sphere that represents the hub of most organizational, social, educational and nutritional activities.
Seven-twelve. Two minutes late.
Our tardiness drew an annoyed growl from our pre-breakfast taskmaster, one of the staff naturalists. But I was proud, even mildly stunned: If I could drag these disheveled recruits from their sleeping bags to meal-prep duty in 12 minutes, we could achieve almost anything.
Of course, our trailer might also descend into “Lord of the Flies” chaos and I’d be found some morning, impaled on a spit fashioned from bunk springs and No. 2 pencils.
Fortunately, the KEEP schedule was relentless: The 100 or so kids in camp that week were scheduled for something practically every minute of the day. If the Whales were going to plot some horrible end to their counselor, they’d have to do it in the 60 minutes or so between their lights-out time and mine.
But these boys had other things on their minds in that hour between lights-out and quiet time: girls. They kept all the sixth-grade drama to themselves, in whispers, groans and giggles, but I could sniff it, just below the surface.
Or, possibly, it was dirty socks.
After breakfast that first day, we took a 15-minute bus ride to Morro Rock and watched two peregrine falcons chase away a red-tail hawk.
Then we went to a Morro Bay pier for “belly biology,” plopping face down on the dock, students and counselors together, to touch starfish and sea anemones.
Then it was off to an estuary to watch pencil-beaked sandpipers dig for ghost shrimp and gobi fish at the “mud flat cafe.” We dug for those same critters, reaching elbow-deep into the black, gritty mud.
Back at KEEP, the campers trudged off the bus in a state of near-catatonic exhaustion. But set loose for an hour of free time, most were miraculously restored — many of them so revitalized they jumped straight into a rousing game of full-contact volleyball.
It went on that way for two more days — whale-watching along the high dunes of Montaña de Oro, Chumash-tribe appreciation lectures along the gently sloping trails of the chaparral, tide-pool gazing where the surf met the jagged shoreline, a bracing hike to the top of the hill just below Valencia Peak.
In between, there was a PowerPoint lecture on the vastness of the cosmos, the dedication of a new greenhouse (presented to KEEP by Stockdale Elementary School), chocolate-milk spills at the dinner table, fierce competition for cleanest trailer and silly songs around the campfire under a dazzling night sky.
By the fourth and final night at KEEP, my nine Whales had mellowed considerably — but our trailer was a ticking methane bomb of sweat, ripe socks and overactive digestive tracts.
It wasn’t just us, though. My sixth-grade daughter, sequestered with the females on the southern (and presumably better-smelling) side of the camp, radiated a milky brilliance on Day 1.
By Thursday, she looked like she’d been living under a bridge.
But did she learn anything about the environment? About global responsibility? Personal accountability? Did anybody? We find out in 20 years when these kids, and the thousands of others who have visited one of California’s many school-affiliated environmental camps, get to run the world.
I feel pretty good about them so far.
Of course, the hot shower and familiar mattress helped my mood quite a bit.
Originally published Feb. 13, 2005.