ELDERSBURG -- A 10-inch, puffy-cheeked garter snake wrapped around Elaine Sweitzer's fingers, occasionally taking a tiny bite.
"He's not hurting me," she assured the children, who had accompanied her on a hike through Piney Run Park.
The Nature Explorers, 7- and 8-year-olds, led by Ms. Sweitzer, had taken the snake along for their walk, hoping to find it a home in the woods.
"We are going to let our buddy go," said Ms. Sweitzer, park naturalist, as she placed the snake on the moss-covered ground.
"Wait!," shouted Scott Werner, 8. "Can I keep him?"
Too late. Within seconds, the snake was slithering out of sight.
"He will like it here but he may have trouble finding food," Ms. Sweitzer said.
Although the snake might prefer a large bug or a small toad, Janna Ridenour, 7, tossed it some trail mix.
The snake, which was discovered curled up comfortably among the toys in an Eldersburg family room, made its way to the park for identification and relocation, when the lady of the house gingerly placed it in a glass jar.
"This one gave us a fit before we finally figured out what kind it was," said Ms. Sweitzer, who works at the park's Nature Center. "The black polka dots on its cheeks finally told us he was a brown decay snake."
Still residing in the jar, the snake landed in Ms. Sweitzer's backpack and went along for the Explorers' hike last week.
In addition to finding a suitable home for the snake, the children looked for clues and signs left by animals active during the fall.
"Let's use all our senses," said Ms. Sweitzer, as she assembled the group outside the Nature Center. "Scratch and smell the leaves of this spice bush."
"Peeeuuuu," said Meagan Mattson, 7.
Unlike Meagan, caterpillars are attracted to the smell and make "sleeping bags" out of the leaves, said the naturalist.
"Nobody is home here," said Janna, unfurling a leaf end. "I guess the bug dropped out."
Janna, who calls herself the "little park ranger," found a better-smelling, and tastier, sassafras tree.
"Indians used these leaves to make tea," Janna said.
"And to brush their teeth," added Scott.
For more than an hour, the children wandered through the woods, looking for signs of animal life.
"We found a dinner table and somebody made a mess!," shouted Matt Dulany, 8, looking at a pile of cracked and discarded acorns on the trail.
In the fall, animals have so much food available, they often don't know what to eat first, Ms. Sweitzer said.
"Squirrels have to eat real fast and before dark, so the owls don't eat them," she said.
She pointed to a trail of acorns leading to a little hole. Janna decided it must have been "a mole's house" and left him a few marshmallows.
"I see erosion," said Jeff Zamostny, 8, pointing to leaf litter and pine needles.
Christopher Kindt, 8, said not to worry. The erosion helps keep the weeds down.
Matt Grimes, 7, found a toad home and the perfect fishing spot. He planned to bring his father back soon with rods and reels.
"The beavers have been here, too," Matt said. "See how they have chewed the bark from the bottom of the trees?"
"These kids are smart as whips," said Ms. Sweitzer.
Hidden behind thick-leaved trees, the children giggled and listened secretly to fishermen who were angling out on the lake.
Several children picked up large fallen branches and broke off shoots with their feet as they walked along. By trail's end, many had obtained ideal walking sticks they planned to take with them on the next exploring session.