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Counting bugs and building teamwork equal fun at youth camp in Ephraim Canyon

Published: Friday, July 12 2013 5:50 p.m. MDT

Hannah Bennett of Stansbury Park and Sarah Casale of the U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Reclamation search for aquatic macroinvertebrates in Lake Hill during Nature High Summer Camp in Ephraim Canyon on Thursday, July 11, 2013.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

EPHRAIM CANYON — There's not a lot of time for sitting around the campfire at this weeklong summer camp for high school students.

Up at 6 a.m., breakfast at 7 and a day learning entomology, biology, hydrology, geology and a bunch of "ologys" that stem from being immersed in the outdoor classroom offered by Ephraim Canyon.

These six teams of students are schooled by natural resource experts from a variety of federal agencies and institutions through actual field work that may take them wading in a lake, digging up bugs or counting the rings of a tree.

Along the way, camp director Sierra Hellstrom said something magical happens to these kids, and they're not even sure when it does.

"They may start at the beginning of the week not knowing much," Hellstrom said. "And then they gain a sense of possessiveness, that this is their national forest, that, yes, they can make a difference. They gain such a devotion to maintaining the beauty we have here."

Welcome to Nature High Summer Camp, a 20-plus-year tradition that merges a youthful quest for learning with the expertise of those in the know when it comes to monitoring and managing natural resources.

The camp, which is limited to 30 students and costs $50 — a fee often waived through scholarships — combines learning with team-building challenges that Hellstrom said demands "high energy and high muscle" to complete.

On Thursday, for example, teams tackled the so-called "spiderweb" challenge, which featured strings of bungee cords connected in web-like maze. Teams had to maneuver through the empty spaces without touching the cords. Often, this required other teammates to hoist a colleague to get through a high spot in the web unscathed.

Another challenge involved moving an A-frame by pulling on strings.

"We get a lot of leaders who stand out, who come up with solutions on how to solve it," Hellstrom said. "We purposefully do not tell them how. We want them to figure it out for themselves and work together."

Camp participants also spent part of the day donning waders and picking their way through Lake Hill, scooping up samples of tiny bugs that will tell them about the extent of any contaminants in the lake. The lesson in aquatic biology had them snaring caddisfly and damselfly larvae.

"Bugs usually freak me out, but it ended up being surprisingly fun," said Maddisen Antes of Layton.

Another Layton camper, Rachel Oakeson, said she didn't even miss her phone or the Internet.

"I learned you can tell pollution by the type of insects you find," she said.

Another lesson involved taking core samples from tree strands, looking at the rings to determine the age of the trees and make assessments about their health.

In the Manti-La Sal National Forest, where the camp is being held, bark beetle infestations have been a major issue, Hellstrom said, so the lesson combines bugs and trees and an ecosystem under attack.

On the final night of the camp, the high school students got to tackle the "Olympic" challenge, which combines a self-styled skit, cheer and fashion show.

"Sometimes it is the kids you least expect, the shy ones, the introverts, who have us laughing so hard we are falling off the benches," Hellstrom said.

Ultimately, the goal of Nature High Camp is to ignite interest in the participants in a possible career in a natural resources field.

Multiple agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service and U.S. Geological Survey come together to provide the experts for the hands-on learning experience.

"Natural resources jobs really don't interest kids anymore," Hellstrom said. "With technology being what it is, being outdoors, going hiking, getting outside is not something every kid wants to do anymore. It is really rewarding when you do find that kid who discovers they like counting bugs or they're excited about trees."

The camp definitely made an impression on many of the students.

Hannah Bennett from Stansbury Park said she had planned on being a teacher, but now she is sure she wants to teach subjects like chemistry or hydrology — based on what she has learned over the last several days.

For Itzel Mora of Logan, the experience opened up a brand new world.

"I loved learning new things," she said. "I've never been interested in nature before, but I loved realizing what is out there."

And that, Hellstrom said, means Nature High Summer Camp did what it set out to do.

Next year's camp is scheduled for July 14-19. More information is available at www.naturehighcamp.com.

Email: amyjoi@deseretnews.com, Twitter: amyjoi16

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