WESTMINSTER — Ten-year-old Eric Surratt arrives at Winter Nature Camp a day late, but just in time for a five-hour hike through Carroll County's rolling hills with other fourth- and fifth-graders.
"Do yourself a favor and change into some long underwear," camp guide Vinnie Duffy instructs the Baltimore fourth-grader.
As Eric darts off to a cabin to change clothes, Duffy and his wife Maria round up the other 18 or so campers. Backpacks are checked and the troops are encouraged to use the bathroom before they begin their hike through the Hashawha Environmental Appreciation Center, a nature retreat off Route 97.
Bundled in a pink coat but already shivering from the 20-degree temperature, a dark-haired girl is shuffled back to a cabin to put socks and warmer clothing on.
"I had to give these kids a lecture about eating last night and this morning," says Duffy, a physical education teacher from Columbia, Howard County, who helps conduct programs at the popular county-owned center. "They all left food on their plates. I kept telling them they need to eat to stay warm outdoors."
Undaunted by the cold, a parade of pink, blueand green coats leaves camp and marches down a hill toward a creek snaking through the valley.
A second day in the outdoors has begun.
The youngsters have had some time to acclimate themselves. After an 8 a.m. breakfast, they played an environmental version of blind-man's-bluff in a grove of trees centered between the five L-shaped and winterized cabins, where they bunked for the night.
Each youngsterin turn was blindfolded and escorted -- in a roundabout way -- to a tree. After touching the tree, the child was returned to the edge of the grove and the blindfold was removed. The youngster then had to find the tree he or she touched.
"They weren't successful at first,"Duffy says. "Maria gave them some hints, like trying to remember smells or the feel of the tree. They liked the game. They played it three times."
The game was just one of the activities the children took part in during three days of winter recreation, nature lore and outdoor living. The annual camp, designed for fourth- and fifth-graders,begins the day after Christmas and runs for three days.
"This program helps them learn to appreciate nature," says Maria, a registerednurse and, like her husband, an outdoors enthusiast. "This gives them a new appreciation of winter. Life outdoors doesn't stop because it's cold. I think a lot of kids take winter for granted."
Adds her husband, "A lot of these kids haven't been camping in the winter. This is something new. Some have been here for other programs but never for something like this."
Among those is Lisa Cooper, a ManchesterElementary fifth-grader.
"I've been here for summer camp, but never during the winter," the 10-year-old says. "The cold doesn't matter. It's been fun so far."
Sarah Norbck, a Carrolltowne Elementary fourth-grader, says, "This is sort of like hiking in the summer exceptit's cold. I like learning about nature."
The Sykesville 9-year-old added that the outing was her own idea.
"It's something I decided to do," she says.
Like other children, 10-year-old Todd Perzynski didn't seem to mind leaving behind unwrapped and barely used Christmas presents. The Westminster youth had a chance to use some of his presents, which included warm winter clothing.
"My dad and I do a lot of stuff outdoors," explains Todd, a fourth-grader at Boys' LatinSchool in Baltimore. "This is fun. Yesterday we climbed a wall. Lastnight we looked at stars and tried to call owls. We didn't see any. I think we were making too much noise."
Climbing a wall, part of an outdoor obstacle course tackled the day before, was popular with many of the youngsters. They also liked making homemade bread to accompany their spaghetti dinner and the evening entertainment, which included star gazing.
On this hike, as the youngsters group near the creek, Duffy asks them to identify a tall and barren tree. Its bark is peeling along its upper trunk and branches, which reach into the sky like the spirals of a cathedral.
"Who knows what kind of tree thisis?" Duffy asks. "Why would you want to know?"
"It may be useful," a girl suggests.
Duffy nods and identifies the tree as a sycamore. "It looks like it's sick. That's where the 'syc' comes from. Wherethe 'amore' comes from, I don't know. These trees are always found along rivers."
The next is to cross the creek over a two-line bridge -- two wires stretched across the width of the creek. Two foot bridges cross the water in nearby places. The youngsters, spacing themselves about 10 feet apart, take turns crossing the two-line bridge.
"You don't want to fall in," Duffy warns. "The water is probably about 40 degrees and the air is 20. You'll have frostbite before we can even get you back to the camp."
Once across, the campers try unsuccessfully to attract crows and hawks with a tape-recording of their screeches. They fall in line along a trail, where they are asked to look for acorns, berries, different colored stones, leaves and animal tracks.
Some of those items will be used to adorn a wreath -- a craft project waiting for them when they return to camp later in the day.
Two hours after the hike begins, the group nears the Martin Log Cabin, circa 1850, where a cooler of drinks and lunch is waiting. Lunch is not prepared, though. Wood is gathered and a kettle is hauled along to cook hot dogs.
"We're not eating inside?" a youngster asks.
"That," Duffy says, "would be too easy."