From the moment the sixth graders of Berkeley Township Elementary School arrived at the New Jersey School of Conservation on Monday June 9th, their enthusiasm was contagious. The cheer of excitement from the four buses as they pulled in front of Long House could be heard throughout campus. After rallying the boys to the Lenape bunkhouse and settling the girls in their hillside cabins across Lake Wapalanne, the one hundred and eighty-some students piled into the dining hall of Big Timbers for their first meal at NJSOC. Their anticipation for exploring the trails and lake buzzed against the walls after a very long bus ride from Bayville through the rain and traffic and into the forested roads of Stokes State Forest.
After a brief orientation where the students were introduced to the SOC staff, the students grabbed their buddies and group-mates, and headed to their first class. For some their first class was a chance to get all of their energy out in the fast-paced game of “life-or-death” in Web of Life. The students discussed many of the survival challenges faced by native New Jersey wildlife in their habitats and covered one of the laws of ecology, where nature creates equilibrium in an ecosystem. Becoming either an herbivore, omnivore, or carnivore, the students were then released into their “natural” environment of the NJSOC campus to find food, water, shelter and space in order to survive. Of course, the game was much more interesting when the kids had to avoid being “eaten” by other classmates. “It’s like the Hunger Games!” the kids whispered to each other as they grabbed their animal “lifelines” and ran out the door. Soon, they came to realize how each animal depended on one another and how humans can impact the ecosystem with both chemical pollution and habitat destruction.
The next morning the students woke up with their heads filled with the exciting animals they met during their evening program “A Touch of Nature” and anxious for more outdoor classes at the NJSOC. A few groups started with a hike in Black Bear Ecology, where they surveyed the campus’ trees and telephone poles for fresh bear scratches and hair samples. The students also tried out a few bear traps for size, learning about capture, relocation and monitoring of bears with radio collars. Then it was time for a visit to an old bear den and to look at and touch a real life bear skin. Other groups grabbed their nets and buckets and headed to the shores of Lake Wapalanne in search of salamanders, frogs, turtles and aquatic macro-invertebrates in Water Ecology, but watch out for the mud! The SOC staff were relieved to hear that all the students were rescued from the muck with smiles and a good laugh even if the lake did swallow a few of our rubber boots. Unfortunately, no one from Fish Ecology was able to hook the missing footwear, but they did reel in plenty of fish! The lucky students learned how to measure, weigh and identify the native Sunfish in the lake before returning them safely back to their watery homes.
Even with all the exploring, there was still enough time in the day for some outdoor sports. Boating was on the agenda for many, which involved paddling canoes and rowboats out through the buoy course in Lake Wapalanne. In Archery, the Berkeley kids showed their skills getting nearly perfect scores on the range, thanks to their preparation in gym class back in Bayville. At the Climbing Wall, many students experienced their first climb on the twenty foot wall and surprised even themselves as they climbed onto the top platform, waving down at their friends. A few kids even challenged themselves on the more difficult thirty-five foot wall. All that physical exertion should have definitely left these Berkeley kids tired, but they still had a great evening dancing the night away and enjoying the glow of a surprise campfire. The students were so wonderful in their classes that their coordinators Kathy Palagonia and Mike Conforti thought it was only fitting that their last night at NJSOC deserved a proper campfire at Piney Point to celebrate.