Camps keep stake in a 'magical place'

Monkton land's new owner to maintain tradition

July 07, 2008|By Kevin Rector | Kevin Rector,Sun Reporter

Nancy Hudes' 3-year-old son Paul ran up to her covered in black dust at the end of a long day at nature camp.

"Oh my God, you're filthy," she said. "What happened?"

"Charcoal pit," Paul said, smiling coyly.

His mother laughed again. "The dirtier the better," she said.

This was a typical end-of-the-day interaction at Don Webb's Nature Camps, which for the last 20 years have offered hundreds of Baltimore-area children opportunities to explore 228 acres of lush green woodlands on the edge of Gunpowder Falls State Park in Monkton.

But it's a scene that might not be continuing had a local man with a passion for kids and camps not bought the land in May.

In August 2006, four local civic associations that had owned the property since 1950 decided they couldn't serve as landlords any longer, and put it up for sale. They had already sold the development rights on the land to conservancy groups in 2002, so it could never be turned into strip malls or town homes. But a new owner could still evict the nature camps.

"It's my baby, so I was concerned," said Webb, who has run the camps since 1974 and used the Monkton property since 1988.

Then in May, those worries were alleviated when the property was bought by Al Henneman, the owner of Worthington Valley Swim Club for 25 years, who had been a teacher at Dulaney High School for 20 years. While Henneman has made clear that more camps will be coming in, he has said he wants Webb's nature camps to continue there.

"There will be a series of changes that will probably be difficult for Don, because he's had full run of the property," Henneman said. "But he'll certainly be invited to come back."

Henneman said he's "big on athletics," and sports camps will likely come to the property. He'd also like to see some sort of confidence-building camp develop, he said. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts that have long used the property in the fall, winter and spring will continue to come to the grounds. In a written piece for Nature Camps' July newsletter, Henneman said his mission is to "have as many children as possible leave their computers and video games to become one with nature on this magnificent property."

Webb, 66, who has a soft-spoken and easy-going manner, said he's looking forward to working with Henneman to figure out how Nature Camps will coexist with those coming next summer.

"It won't change how we do things, we'll just share the property," Webb said. "It'll be exciting."

Members of Gunpowder Youth Camps Inc. - the organization made up of the Towson American Legion, Towson Kiwanis, Cockeysville Optimist and Towson-Timonium Rotary Clubs that sold the property - said Henneman's commitment to using the property for camps is a big plus.

"Our hesitation in selling was maybe there won't be any more activities or camping out there, but I think that will continue, maybe even more activity than when we had it," said Bill Engel, the organization's former board president. "We had owned it for so long, but the clubs that owned it were a bunch of old men - tired old men. ... The time was right to move on."

Roy Bayne, the organization's current president, said the group's last meeting will be on Monday, when Gunpowder Youth Camps Inc. will be disbanded. The four member associations will split the money, and are looking forward to putting it back into local communities, Bayne said.

Back at Nature Camps on a recent afternoon, all these details seemed distant. Kids ages 4 to 16 (with the occasional 3-year-old) romped through streams, climbed on ropes courses and took part in activities in a laid-back atmosphere.

"We've tried a lot of camps, but this is the only camp that really works for my kids," said Nancy Hudes of Owings Mills, whose charcoal-covered son Paul was joined at the camps by his brothers Seth, 5, and Matthew, 7. "I think it's just the freedom - I know it sounds silly - but just the freedom to dig in the dirt."

"It's like a second home. It's where I grew up and got to explore and play," said Cecilia Galarraga, 21, a counselor who has attended the camps in one role or another since she was 8. "It means a lot to be here."

Galarraga's presence means a lot to the fabric of the camps too, said Webb, who believes mixed-age learning is best for kids. The institutional knowledge at Nature Camps is profound. You can find more than a decade of it in someone who's only lived two. And that's important, Webb said. The fact that many counselors were once campers, and that many campers aspire to become counselors, is what keeps the camp spirit and philosophy alive, he said.

Those at the camp for their first time quickly fall into the fold as well.

Stasia Reynolds of Baltimore said her twin boys Owen and Emmet, 7, raved about it when she picked them up after their first day.

"They almost in unison said, 'I can't wait for tomorrow,' so I thought that was a ringing endorsement," she said.

"We pretty much think it's the most magical place in the world," said Emily Demski of Pikesville, whose son Bennett, 8, and daughter Lucy, 5, have attended for years. "I wish every child in the world could have this experience."

kevin.rector@baltsun.com

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