A SMALL GROUP of toddlers and parents gather in the early morning at Little Seneca Lake in Germantown for story time. This is not your traditional sit-down-style story hour. Instead the small group standing at the water's edge will soon board "King Fisher," a good-sized pontoon, where, for an hour, they will cruise around the scenic 500-acre lake, make an arts and crafts project, eat a snack and hear stories that feature herons, geese and turtles -- wildlife they will have just seen firsthand.
Black Hill Regional Park is a 2,000-acre enclave in Montgomery County located just minutes from bustling I-270, a quiet haven in close proximity to suburban shopping centers and strip malls. Little Seneca Lake lies at the heart of the park. As you drive down the winding, tree-lined park road, past picnic groves, a large playground and the prominent visitors center, you can catch glimpses of the sparkling lake long before you reach the water.
During the summer months the naturalists at Black Hill Regional Park put together a host of public programs for children that take advantage of the good weather and the lake. Story time on the lake is an educational nature outing specifically geared for children ages 3 to 6. For children age 8 and up there are kayaking forays for the beginning paddler, and for older teens there are more rigorous kayaking and canoe challenges available. But be warned: These are not drop-off programs, where you leave your child for an hour or so. These are family programs, designed with children and adults in mind. "They are great outdoor activities that the family can do together," says Fawn Foerster, a park naturalist at Black Hill. "That's the whole idea behind them." Foerster is already on the dock when I arrive, greeting parents and handing out bright multicolored life vests to the 14 children gathered.
Once the children are on the boat and seated, Foerster introduces herself and goes over a short list of rules, which really amount to one important warning: "Don't lean over the edge." As the boat pulls away from the dock, Foerster tells the group to keep their eyes peeled for "wildlife and other cool stuff." Within minutes children are calling out their first bird or turtle sightings.
The pace of our nature expedition is relaxed. The pontoon, easily large enough to accommodate the group of 20 or so, glides along the 16 miles of the lake's shoreline, passing through a bucolic landscape dotted with farm houses and silos. Foerster navigates the boat into a few small coves, stopping to point out beaver lodges, identify bird species and give a little background about the lake -- it was damned in 1983, to create a freshwater reserve for D.C. Traveling with Foerster is like having your own personal naturalist. She expertly answers any question and speaks to different levels, telling stories that engage both parent and child. The inveterate naturalist is also a mother of four and is clearly at ease with young children.
The cost for this one-hour learning excursion is $3 for children, $2 for adults. Also included is a story, which Foerster reads; a craft (we made origami "critter catchers," folded paper projects that resemble herons' beaks); and a small snack. The arts and crafts activity and story, though enjoyed, are secondary to the nature sightings, which really engage the children's full attention. Heading back to the dock at the end of the hour, the story-time group has floated past turtles sunning themselves on beaver-felled logs, drifted under a green-backed heron with shockingly bright yellow legs and been in the middle of the lake watching a dozen tiny, brown goslings swimming in perfect formation behind their mother -- things they never may have experienced on land.
As schools let out and the weather gets warmer, these parent-child outings will become more popular. Black Hill begins booking their programs 30 days in advance. If you suspect that you want to try one of these excursions on the lake, call early. If the course is booked, don't despair. The naturalists have dreamed up a bevy of programs, producing a full and varied schedule this summer. Chances are if one program is filled, another may be open. Upcoming events include kayaking at twilight (when the beavers are most active), picnic dinner cruises on the pontoon and a story time at dusk. The cost for most of the park's programs ranges from $2 to $6 per person. Admission to the park is free.
If you have not booked a scheduled event but would like to visit the park and tool around the lake, there is also a boat rental facility on sight. Open from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Friday, Saturday and Sunday (noon to 6 p.m. during the week), the rental facility has canoes and rowboats available. For those interested in a less paddle-intensive experience, the park's pontoon goes out almost every hour on the hour, starting at noon on weekends. The cost is $2 for a scenic lake cruise that is open to all ages.
The toddlers are excited as they leave the story-time boat; and they talk about the birds, turtles and fish they have seen. Matthew Petraites, a 3-year-old from Germantown, removes a new pair of binoculars from his neck, the first time all morning he has taken them off, his mother Erin informs us. For Foerster, who is busy saying goodbye to the children, the day is far from over.
After story time, the energetic naturalist will change clothes and go on to meet another group of children and parents at the lake for an hour of kayaking and instruction. Many of the participants will be first-time kayakers, and Foerster assures them that she has never had a child (or parent) who couldn't master the art of the paddle. The crux of what she is trying to do here, she says, is not just to educate, but to pass along a call to action, to prompt families to go outdoors and try different types of activities together. "We don't teach facts," says Foerster heading toward the beach with a kayak paddle in hand. "We teach experiences."
BLACK HILL VISITOR CENTER -- Black Hill Regional Park, 20926 Lake Ridge Dr., Boyds. 301/916-0220. Web site: www.mncppc.org (click on "Montgomery County" then "Publications" then "Nutshell News" for an events calendar). The Visitor Center is open daily from 11 to 6. The park is open daily from 6:30 a.m. to sunset. Admission is free.
Pontoon, kayak and other water excursions scheduled for June (all events meet at the boat rental facility, unless otherwise noted):
Saturday -- Can You Canoe? Learn to canoe safely. For ages 12 to adult. Canoe and other equipment provided. 4 to 6 p.m. $6. And Family Beaver Patrol from the deck of the pontoon. Open to all ages. 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. $4.50.
Tuesday -- C&O Canal/Potomac River Birding by Kayak. For ages 12 to adult (children ages 12 to 17 must be accompanied by an adult), 9:45 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Meet at the C&O Canal, Pennyfield Lock (call for additional information). $8.
Thursday -- Story Time on the Lake Pontoon Boat Ride: "Turtles." For children ages 3 to 6 (must be accompanied by an adult). 10 to 11:15 a.m. $3 for children, $2 for adults.
June 15 -- Story Time on the Lake Pontoon Boat Ride: "Fireflies." For children ages 3 to 6 (must be accompanied by an adult). 9:30 to 11 a.m. $3 for children, $2 for adults.
June 18 -- Island Maze Kayak Adventure. For ages 13 to adult (children ages 13 to 17 must be accompanied by an adult). Meet at the Black Hill Visitor Center. Noon to 9 p.m. $18.
The park also offers scenic pontoon rides. The 50-minute tour leaves the boat rental facility every hour on the hour from noon to 6 p.m., Friday (after June 25), Saturday and Sunday. The cost is $2 per person, ages 2 to adult.
Canoe and rowboat rental are available at the boat rental facility: $5 per hour or $19 for the entire day. The boat rental facility is open through Labor Day weekend from Monday through Thursday, from noon to 6 p.m., and Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
CAPTION: Fawn Foerster, a naturalist at Black Hill Park, takes to the water with a group she has instructed in kayaking.