Serious sessions are intermingled with more light-hearted fare. One afternoon, we hike across the island to two small cottages built by Mabel Loomis Todd, who purchased the island in the early 1900s and whose daughter deeded it to the Audubon Society in the 1930s. We get lost in a time warp in the dark, dusty cabin as Webster reads from Dickinson's poetry and tells us about the soap opera-like history between Todd and Dickinson, who, as neighbors in Amherst, Mass., were on friendly terms until Todd had a very indiscreet affair with the poet's brother Austin. After Dickinson's death, Todd became instrumental in saving her work. The writer's scrawlings were edited by Todd in this very cabin, we are told, which delights the Dickinson fans in our group.
During another excursion, rain is threatening as we head to the mainland for a bird walk once led by the late Roger Tory Peterson, the camp's first ornithology instructor. Peterson and other notable ornithologists, such as Alan Cruikshank, whose photographs decorate the dining hall, are part of the camp's rich history. Since the place opened in 1936, many of the more than 50,000 campers who have come to Hog Island have followed in Peterson's footsteps around the bird-friendly village of Medomak, where residents have agreed to leave fields unmowed for wildlife and each house sports birdhouses and feeders. We examine the remains of an unfortunate kingfisher fledging that Leckey believes was killed by a merlin, and scratch our heads at a hooded merganser that hops in and out of a wood duck nesting box. That afternoon, the rain is pouring down and only a few of us agree to do a field and pond study. Shubel is the first to wade thigh-deep into the pond, netting green frogs, eels, spring peeper tadpoles, damselfly larvae and water striders, which are examined and released.
Campers on a Maine Audubon program get close to nature by staying on Hog Island.
(Photos Courtesy of Maine Audubon)
On the last night, the mood turns festive, as camp director Seth Benz announces that he will make a trip to the mainland to buy wine and beer to accompany our special lobster dinner. We've studied hard all week, and now it's time to enjoy a drink and eat a rich meal. The evening ends with a series of skits that feature a shadow puppet show put on by the staff, a take-off on our unofficial "Arthropod Week" theme that is rich in groan-producing puns. Then it's the campers' turns. Chris Osborn of Peekskill, N.Y., sings the old Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts" with such sweetness that tears come to my eyes. And the group of women who shared the dormitory room put on a skit that brings down the house as Joanne O'Beirne of the Bronx yells out, with a thick New York accent, "What? Only half a tostada?" Even Laberge laughs.
Late the next afternoon, I am finally back in Washington after a battle against rush-hour traffic that takes as long as the flight. The voice mail light is blinking on my phone and my cell phone flashes with waiting messages. I turn on my computer: 125 personal and 328 work e-mails. The mail is stacked on the table. A week's worth of headlines need to be scanned.
Momentarily overwhelmed, I retreat outdoors to examine the salamanders and wood frog tadpoles in my small pond and watch the chipmunks argue with the gray squirrels over a scattering of seed. I consider Bochan's radical ideas about living a simple existence in a cabin in the woods. And as I contemplate tackling the backlog of my technology-driven life, her concept doesn't sound far-fetched.
Carol Sottili will be online to discuss this story Monday at 2 p.m. during the Travel section's weekly chat on www.washingtonpost.com.
Details: Nature Camps
Maine Audubon's Hog Island offers several youth, family and adult camps each summer. The five-day "Natural History of the Maine Coast" program costs $825 per person. Other adult camps include field ornithology, kayaking, a workshop for educators, retreats and yoga. Prices range from $225 for the three-day yoga program to $1,125 for the "Naturalizing by Kayak" camp; meals, workshops and lodging included. Sessions still to come this summer include "Om on the Island" Aug. 23-25 and Family Camp Aug. 15-20. Info: 888-325-5261, www.maineaudubon.org.
GETTING THERE: The camp is about 60 miles northeast of Portland and about 600 miles north of Washington. You can fly nonstop on United or Independence Air from Washington Dulles for about $162 round trip. From the airport, take Mid-Coast Limo (800-937-2424, www.midcoastlimo.com) to the town of Damariscotta for $45 each way. The camp van will pick you up in Damariscotta.
WHAT TO BRING: The camp provides a detailed list of recommended clothing and supplies. DEET, waterproof gear, field guides and binoculars are musts. Bring sweats and a change of clothes in a carry-on bag in case your luggage gets lost: The island's gift store offers some clothes but not a wide variety. If you'd like a cocktail, bring your own; no alcohol is served. Cell phones don't work well on the island, but a boat goes to the mainland each day for a short period so campers can use the pay phone; bring a credit card or phone card because it doesn't take coins.
OTHER OPTIONS: Several other groups offer nature-oriented camps each summer. While most have already completed their sessions for this season and not yet announced next year's schedules, here are examples of the types of camps held each year. Choices include:
Hunt Hill Audubon Sanctuary (877-777-8383, www.hunthill.org) in Sarona, Wisc. The sixth annual "Wade Into Ecology" adult camp ($695 per person), held in early July this year, explores the habitats of northwestern Wisconsin.
Wolf Camp (360-319-6892, www.wolfjourney.com) in Monroe, Wash. Several sessions are offered each summer; choices this year included a seven-day "Wildlife Tracking & Birding" camp ($475 per person with camping accommodations) and a four-day "Herbal Medicine & First Aid" session ($325 per person).
Elderhostel (877-426-8056, www.elderhostel.org), for adults ages 55 and over. Several sessions are offered in camp-life facilities that focus on nature. For example, a "Wealth of the Appalachians: History & Culture of the Mountains" session ($430 per person) will be held Aug. 29-Sept. 3 at the Mountain Retreat & Learning Center in Highlands, N.C.
Audubon Center of the North Woods (888-404-7743, www.audubon-center.org) in Sandstone, Minn. Several ecology programs are held. Choices this summer included a four-day "Mammals of the Badlands" ($750 per person).
-- Carol Sottili