WHO CAN RESIST the intimacy of campfires? The glow of eager faces circled in the firelight while darkness lies beyond. The mouth watering as you stand -- graham cracker and chocolate bar in hand -- and gently rotate your browning marshmallow over the dancing flame. Mmm . . . irresistible, except for the actual camping out part.
I've never been able to sleep on the ground with bugs, bumps and mysterious, scurrying critters. Access to campfire rings -- acceptable areas in which to build a campfire -- usually requires camping out. And roasting marshmallows over our backyard gas grill just doesn't cut it.
Not to worry. For camping wimps like me, area nature centers offer plenty of opportunities to enjoy the campfire ambiance without having to sleep in a bag. You can revel in a fire set, maintained and doused by experts.
On a spring evening earlier this year, my daughter and I headed to Riverbend Park in Great Falls for one of its scheduled campfire programs. The fire was already burning strong in its circle of rocks as families arrived early to picnic before the program began. Eau de bug spray lingered in the air as I admired the sweep of the Potomac River and the wingspan of great blue herons flying with the current.
Most campfire programs have a theme, and this evening's theme was fishing. Several families and a gaggle of Girl Scouts cast their lines into the smooth-flowing waters near the boat launch. Younger children could participate in a scavenger hunt, looking for laminated pictures of local fish in the wooded area surrounding the campfire. Other families roasted weenies they'd brought from home. "People really like unstructured time," said John Callow, a naturalist at Riverbend. "We try not to jam-pack the program too much." Thus, the first half of the program is basically unprogrammed.
The atmosphere was leisurely as folks ate, fished and relaxed. We strolled to the waterside to watch the fishing and see if we could spot a water snake that had been sighted earlier. The cicadas had quieted with the fall of evening. Overhead, woodpeckers tapped trees in search of their own dinners.
No campfire, however, is complete without a story. A half-hour into the program, the naturalists spread a tarp across the grass and invited us to gather. Mona Enquist-Johnson, an amateur storyteller, spun a Finnish tale about why fish can't talk. Kids and adults stomped their feet to mimic the sound of thunder and rubbed their hands to make the swish of water running at the appropriate pauses.
After the story, the fire had died down enough to toast marshmallows. While some folks couldn't get enough fishing, my daughter and I helped unpack the graham crackers and chocolate bars. Using both skewers provided by the nature center and long sticks they'd found in the woods, kids and adults headed for the glowing embers. To scorch or not to scorch? Crowded around the campfire, advocates for both sides argued amiably as our marshmallows melted to gooey perfection.
Earlier in the spring, my family also enjoyed a campfire with an astronomy theme at Gulf Branch Nature Center in Arlington. We first gathered inside the nature center to hear several stories about the constellations and their mythic origins. Bearing flashlights, we later hiked along a wooded path and into a field in the midst of several houses. From this clearing and with the help of a naturalist, we looked heavenward to discern two planets and several constellations. I was amazed at how much we could see, even in suburbia. Inside, we had listened to the story of Perseus and Andromeda, and now we spied the constellation called Cassiopeia's chair. (She was Andromeda's vain mother.) After our fill of star-gazing, we walked back toward the nature center and circled the campfire. All the fixings for s'mores awaited us.
Although many campfire programs cater to families, they usually welcome adults with or without a child in tow. Last spring, Riverbend Park hosted its first adults-only campfire with a night hike. They plan to offer another one this fall. Regardless of your age, you'll usually hear a good story and learn a thing or two at any campfire program. The settings are lovely, quiet places to spend a few hours, if not the night.
Reservations are required for most events, and rain cancels them. Most charge a small fee and require exact change.
BROOKSIDE NATURE CENTER -- Wheaton Regional Park, 1400 Glenallen Ave., Wheaton. 301-946-9071. www.mc-mncppc.org/parks/activities/nutshell/jul_aug04/brook.pdf. On Aug. 9, a Creature Feature Campfire takes place from 7-8. $1. On Aug. 21, "Bear of a Campfire" takes place from 7-8. $2 per person.
CLEARWATER NATURE CENTER -- 11000 Thrift Rd., Clinton, 301-297-4575. www.pgparks.com/places/nature/clearwater.html. Campfires will be scheduled for the fall. The center will also do campfires for birthday parties.
ARLINGTON NATURE CENTERS -- Campfires are held at Gulf Branch Nature Center, 3608 N. Military Rd., 703-228-3403; or Long Branch Nature Center, 625 S. Carlin Springs Rd., 703-228-6535. Register at 703-228-4747. Summer campfires are nearly full, but the fall calendar should be available Aug. 3 at www.co.arlington.va.us. Click on Calendar then the Nature/Environment category.
RIVERBEND PARK -- 8700 Potomac Hills St. Great Falls. 703-759-9018. www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks. Park will offer campfire programs this fall. The schedule will be available in mid-August.
HIDDEN POND NATURE CENTER -- 8511 Greeley Blvd. 703-451-9588. www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/hiddenpond/index.htm. Center will offer campfire programs this fall. Check the Web site for more info.
POHICK BAY REGIONAL PARK -- 6501 Pohick Bay Dr., Lorton. 703-339-6104. www.nvrpa.org/pohickbay.html. Park offers campfire programs Fridays at 8 for campers at the campground.