I chose not to bring my camera today. For the first time in my adult life, I filled my backpack for an outing without it. "Let's just enjoy the secretary for a change," I'd said foolishly, as we piled into the car and headed for Prince William Forest, half an hour down I-95.

So, naturally, the first pair of eyes to meet ours upon entering the park were those of a young white-tailed deer. Followed closely by the deer's twin. The two of them bounded off to either side of the park's entrance road to flank our car for further study. One, to our right, posed 20 feet away for a moment -- surely long enough to have his portrait shot a dozen times.Then, apparently bored with us, he turned and leaped playfully into the woods, his white tail flickering back and forth. "It's funny," I said to Skye as he lifted our daughter out of her car seat, "in all our years of coming down here, we've never seen a deer. And I've always had my camera before."

Freak occurrences will happen from time to time; we decided to be thankful to have seen the young deer, even without a lens, and began our hike toward the park's small lake.

Half a mile, in the only sound was that of the caterpillars dropping off the tall pines onto the leaf-and-needle floor below. We'd forgotten the pleasant, idyllic sight of the deer, and had grown tired of dodging these insects as they hung, suspended in the air by sticky threads, at eye or belly-button level. I was leading, breaking trail, which meant I had to scout the wiggly devils to protect little Keeley, who rode in a baby pack on Skye's back. Suddenly, a dusky red shape on the tail caught my eye; I stopped my heavy boot just in time to avoid crushing it. Another rare treat had been granted us: a six-inch-long red salamander crouched on a rock, motionless. I succumbed to that childish desire to prod (ever so gently) the poor frightened creature with a stick, to show my girl how salamanders move. But the most I could get from it was a slight switching of its sail. A person would think it had wanted its picture taken.

Azaleas grew more plentiful as we continued along the rippling stream toward the lake; though slightly past their prime, these pink wild flowers, and the huge Virginia dogwoods rising above them, still dotted the forest with color.

We had hiked well into the woods by now, and could hear the lake's excess water rushing over the dam, so we had almost arrived. Footing was tricky at the water's edge, a tangle of tree roots and outcrop rocks; it was nearly impossible to enjoy the scenery for fear of missing a step.

So I looked down at my feet instead of up in the air, only to be pleasantly surprised with the sight of a deep pink moccasin-flower, nestled at the base of a thick tree trunk. The flower, spotted like an orchid, quivered as we brushed past. Droplets of dew, or leftover rainwater, rolled down into the base of the bowl-like leaves. This was the first moccasin-flower I'd seen in this climate, outside of the Elizabethan gardens near Cape Hatteras. It stood, fragile and alone, as we left it for the lake.

A few people hiked and fished around the shoreline as we walked toward the dock; one young man perched boldly at the top of the dam, as water poured past him on either side. A single duck -- mallard, I believe, but since I'd had the poor judgment to leave my glasses in the car I couldn't be sure -- paddled casually around one section of the water, working his way closer to a reed-filled inlet.

And something else swam out there, too, an animal with its head well above water, creating its own streamlined wake as it circled in a wide arc, midway between us and a single fisherman on the far shore. At first I thought it was a dog, the fisherman's dog perhaps, going bravely for a springtime swim. But then, just as I'd gotten Keeley to catch sight of the animal, it did a smooth, silent surface drive underwater, and left no trace of its whereabouts. Dogs, needless to say, don't work too effectively underwater.

After a few futile moments of searching the surface, eyes asquint, for what we now believed was an otter ("Too slim for a beaver" -- "Couldn't see the tail" -- etc.), we gave up the hunt, and found ourselves a sunny spot on the warm dock where we could relax and eat our apples. I suppose it was inevitable, under the circumstances, but before I'd even had two bites, up popped a little wet, sleek head, directly out in front of the dock.

We still weren't sure what we were looking at; Skye's remark that "we should have brought our binoculars" seemed a bit unfair by then. But it swam steadily, in long, circular paths, near to us, then father away, only to come back again, close enough to show whiskers on its face. It may have been disturbed by our appearance right then, for it suddenly ended its smooth swim with a loud pthwack! of its broad, efficient tail. Of course we'd been watching one of Prince William Forest's many beavers; but again, we's never seen one on site before, so we'd been slow to believe one was putting on an aquatic show for us now.

As it happened, that beaver reappeared soon after, and continued his swimming, and splashing, all around the lake. My daughter, interested more in food than water right then, managed to steal my apple away from me; I suppose she was unaware of how rare these woodland sights can be in our time.

I still can't decide whether I had been a fool to have gone so unprepared into the woods. In certain respects, hiking without cameras and other eye gear is as bad as going in without a baggie of nuts and raisins. But, well, we went without either this time, and enjoyed the best wilderness experience we've had in this so-civilized area. Maybe the animals smell cameras the same way they so often smell guns; maybe they like to be remembered only in the mind of the beholder.