The airplane had crashed down deep in the thick jungle of the Amazon rain forest.

The survivors were hungry but trapped in the wreckage, and the lizard eggs were just out of reach. How to get them, when the only available tools were a wooden pole, a rope and 16 eager minds?

This scenario faced the children on a recent summer day at Lions Camp Merrick, an idyllic sleep-away camp along the verdant shoreline of the Potomac River in southwestern Charles County. Most children in such a situation would be batting ideas around, shouting out the best way to capture the eggs.

But at Camp Merrick, the children worked silently among the chirping of birds and the buzz of insects. To accomplish the task, they communicated instead with urgent hand signals. Merrick is one of the few camps in the Washington area for children who are deaf and hard of hearing.

Although these children cannot hear, that usually does not prevent them from having the same camp experiences as other young people, children and counselors said. They conquer precarious rope courses, paddle canoes, hike on nature trails, swim and practice archery. They wear ankle bracelets and bandannas and have skinned knees and bandaged cuts. They hear ghost stories about the infamous monster "Red Eye" and take part in late-night gossip sessions and perhaps romances.

"They do everything that any other residential nature camp does that serves children," said Robert Rainey, the camp administrator.

Emily Talbot, a counselor from Woodbridge, said that "for the most part I don't look at them as being disabled. It's just like any normal camp, except for the signing."

But for some campers, such as London Cason, a giggly 14-year-old from Capitol Heights in Prince George's County, the experience is refreshingly unique. London, who will begin ninth grade in the fall at Friendly High School, said she is frequently ridiculed at her public school for being hard of hearing.

"They hated my laugh. They made fun of my sign language. And sometimes they called me retarded because I was deaf," she said.

London, who can hear better than most of the campers and came to improve her sign language, said she appreciates the chance to be around others who can understand the isolation she endures at school. "When you're in the deaf culture, they accept you and they understand you. That's why I love it here."

Lions Camp Merrick, built in the 1930s, was originally known as the Merrick Boys Camp. It operated on 320 acres in Nanjemoy before falling into disrepair in the 1970s. In 1979 the Lions Clubs of Southern Maryland and Washington leased and renovated the facilities, opening the Camp for the Deaf.

The camp now also provides sessions for children ages 6 to 16 who are blind and others with diabetes. Its name was changed in 1996 to the current one. Much of the funding for the 23-building camp comes from grants, Maryland bonds and the Lions Clubs International Foundation.

At Camp Merrick, all 18 staff members are fluent in American Sign Language, and several come from Gallaudet University in Washington. Four of the counselors have their hearing, including Lauren McKee, 22, from Little Rock.

McKee is a graduate student at the University of Arkansas studying deaf counseling and interpreting. She came to Camp Merrick as an intern and has learned it can be difficult to earn the trust of campers and colleagues who have hearing problems or who are deaf.

During an early staff evening at the Blue Dog Saloon, she said, she sat excluded with another counselor, enduring the cold stares of some of the deaf counselors. If she is trying to discipline campers, she said, they will often cover their eyes with both hands when she is speaking -- out of sight, out of mind.

"Some of the kids won't listen to me because I'm hearing," she said. "It's hard to express my feelings and emotions with deaf people because sign language is not my natural language."

For the most part, however, McKee and other counselors say they cherish the opportunity to help the campers learn more about nature and enjoy a relaxing week in the woods.

One of the campers, Jesse Steingieser, 10, pointed up to a wire strung 40 feet over the forest floor to indicate his favorite activity of the week: the ropes course. He goes to the Maryland School for the Deaf in Frederick, and his parents and his three other siblings also are deaf, he said. Signing to a counselor who served as an interpreter, he described his reasons for coming to Camp Merrick.

"My friends told me this is very fun and that I should come here," he said, acknowledging he received good advice. "It is cool, it's fun."

Counselors Laurie Bishop, left, and Lori Hower hold safety ropes for children. All 18 staff members at the camp know American Sign Language.Jesse Steingieser, 10, uses sign language to give other children guidance in rope exercises at Lions Camp Merrick, such as Noelle Robinson, 9, at left. The camp serves children who are deaf or have hearing problems.