Summer school on the Chesapeake Explore: The Echo Hill Outdoor School offers students weeklong sessions in biology and ecology on Eastern Shore waters.

August 30, 1998|By Anne Miller | Anne Miller,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

QUEENSTOWN, Md. - "Who's ready for some trash jousting?!"

Capt. Nicholas Biles has spied a discarded Natural Light can bobbing in the water of the Chester River a few yards from the dinghy he is piloting back to his skipjack, the Elsworth. He signals one of his charges, Ken Castelli, a skinny 14-year-old, to take hold of one of the long-handled crabbing nets in the bottom of the boat. Ken does, and leans over the side of the small, white boat. As Biles closes in on their target, he directs the boy - "a little to your right, almost there." With a quick flick of his wrists, Ken scoops up the offending object and dumps it in the boat.

This is what Biles calls a "teachable moment," a chance to raise a child's awareness about the environment and the world around him in the summer Explore program of the Echo Hill Outdoor School. Explore is designed to supply plenty of such moments during weeklong sessions spent living on the school's small fleet of canoes, the Elwsorth and the buy-boat Annie D., on Kent County rivers that feed into Chesapeake Bay.

During the school year, grade school and junior high students from New York to Baltimore visit Echo Hill's main campus in Chestertown, a town named for the river it rests on, with their schools to learn about ecology, biology and the Chesapeake watershed hands-on.

During the summer, the Explore program employs a more laid-back approach, relying not on scheduled classes but on the natural rhythms of life on the water to educate students. The program includes five day trips on the Elsworth, a 97-year-old boat listed in the National Register of Historic places, and the buy-boat, which was once used to buy oysters from watermen and sell them to the big packing houses. Kids 10 and older eat, sleep, read, tell stories, swim, fish and otherwise while away long days of sunshine on the boats. A five-day canoe trip paddles up and down the Sassafras river, the Chester's neighbor to the north, sleeping each night at a different campsite. Each trip has six students and three staff members - a captain and two teachers - plus plenty of field guides, sunscreen, fishing poles, filleting knives and Old Bay.

The trips are offered for eight weeks during the summer, usually from the last week of June through the first week of August. While the cost can be prohibitive, at $522 for five days on the skipjack, there are some scholarships available.

"With the ratio of staff to students, there is teaching going on all the time," said Biles, who is also an assistant director of the school. "If we catch a crab and it's lost a leg we talk about why that happened and how it will grow back."

The word used most to describe the trips, from directors, teachers and students alike, is "relaxed." While their peers back in the city may spend a typical summer week at an activity-packed day camp or sports camp or with a harried baby-sitter, the Explore program participants spend languid days on the water, making decisions for themselves about what each day will entail. If the group wants to fish, they fish. If they want to swim, they swim. If they want to hunt for artifacts, they scour the beaches for arrowheads and fossils.

It is close to 10 a.m. when Biles and his dinghy crew of Zack, Ken, and a teacher, Bayard Descamp, return to the Elsworth from a run to shore for water, ice and the bit of jousting. Climbing back on board, as the other teacher, Sarah Suhrmann, helps unload the boat, Biles asks, "So, what do you all want to do today?"

After a few minutes of debate, the group of four girls, all best friends from the Philadelphia suburbs who will enter ninth grade in the fall, and the two boys decide to head for the beach.

"It's a great artifacting beach," Biles announces, and offers some pointers.

"You have to look for something that's broken, like somebody had to break it," he tells Ken and Bayard. "Not smooth like this," he says, picking up a well-worn pebble.

Back on the boat, Ken and Zack decide to go swimming, despite the day's constant rain and 65-degree air temperature. They take turns leaping off the tip of the prow into the water while the girls stow their sleeping bags and Bayard makes lunch, tomato soup and sandwiches. Lunchtime spills clean up quickly with a bucket of water dumped on the deck until it washes clean. For dinner, Sarah holds up the makeshift stove while Bayard ignores the cleaning sponges and rags and just tosses another bucket of river water across the table.

After lunch the rain tapers off, and the girls decide to bathe in the river, the only bath or shower they will have all week. Sarah lathers up on deck and then dives in, but the girls haven't quite perfected their technique. Claire Poulan wraps her foot around a ladder step in a vain attempt to soap her feet and calves, while Kathleen Cantner and Megan Crofford somersault in the water to wash the conditioner from their hair.

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