HOG ISLAND, Me. — Remember last summer? How you felt too hot to move, let alone think? Too limp to socialize or embark upon great new enterprises?
This year try a cool two weeks in Maine while bringing yourself up to date ecologically. Cool can mean 55-degree nights and 80-degree days.
The Audubon Ecology Camp on Hog Island in Lincoln County is still the innovative place it was 50 years ago when it opened. The "bird" people still run it, but birds are just a beginning. You will experience two weeks crammed with such a variety of learning and fun that you'll scarcely have time to write a post card.
You will learn how to band birds, identify wild plants as if by magic, forecast the weather, name the clouds, find your way with compass and topographical map, cook with herbs, make algae pictures good enough to frame and navigate the tricky sand bars of Muscongus Bay.
You'll square-dance, hike all alone in a mature spruce forest and sail to deserted lighthouses and bird rookeries. You'll visit with the squire who owns not only a pristine Irish cottage and an Andrew Wyeth painting to hang in it, but a whole island open to those with the Audubon entree.
At night you'll slip off the pier with your fellow Polar Club members to swim--briefly--in luminescent water or skulk about in the dark to meet porcupine marauders eye-to-eye or a great white heron night fishing.
At one time, my nature interests weren't much more sophisticated than counting birds in the bird bath and picking up shells with oohs and ahs. With grandchildren sizing me up, I thought it time to learn a bit more about nature. My husband said no thanks, after learning that the island had no golf course. It had been a long time since my happy days at Y camp and I wondered if I dared.
My 50 fellow campers, ranging in age from 20 to 80, reassured me. There was a New Yorker who'd never gone to camp and envied her children who had, a successful surgeon coming up for air, an Outward Bound sailing instructor, two shy forest rangers from Burma and a retired couple fresh from a cross-country bike trek. And the Greenwich Village plumber who arrived in his own yacht.
We had widows and singles and couples, all claiming to prefer learning vacations and simple living. They turned out to be open to friendship, cheerful, curious and, all but one, nonsmokers.
As we arrived at the pier we were greeted by most of the staff. They presented us with starfish and kelp and slimy pink sea cucumbers to give us an idea what we were getting into. The cooks and teaching staff helped carry our luggage and I was glad that my winnowing had produced just two small carry-on bags.
The camp is half a dozen buildings from the turn of the century, a wash house and volleyball court on 330 acres of granite coast, sandy beach and trails through the wild interior.
This sanctuary was our classroom. I roomed with 15 women in an old ship's chandlery, two to each small cubicle. We even had hot showers, a luxury I hadn't expected. We had a living room and a balcony so insomniacs could read late or rise early to search out harbor seals, mark the 10-foot tides or watch the sun rise over a fishing fleet.
We met for wholesome meals, strong on local vegetables, fish and fresh fruit, in a restored 19th-Century farmhouse. At breakfast the day's schedule for our smaller study groups would be announced. A staff member headed each table and moving about was encouraged. The last one seated had to go for seconds and clear the table, so attendance was prompt. Other meals might take place aboard the Osprey III or in Hummingbird Garden or down by the beach.
Off to Early Start
We quickly got used to the 6:30 a.m. rising bell and the regimen of morning and afternoon classes. We investigated rocky intertidal communities, went on birding treks, mucked in the mud flats, seined for baby sand shrimp and plankton and caught, cooked and ate periwinkles.
We spent a day exploring a private beach at one of the northernmost coastal sand dune systems in America. We canoed through marshes that led to a lake with a Tarzan swing out over the water. All in all, it was 50 hours of field experience and 20 hours of classroom lectures, not counting mini-lectures and evening programs.
Our dedicated teachers included marine biologists, wildlife managers, botanists, master gardeners, nature writers and artists and ornithologists. We had a lot of questions for the visiting naturalists from the arctic tern and puffin reestablishment projects.
Encouraging terns and puffins to nest on Matinicus Rock and Eastern Egg Rock at the far reaches of Muscongus Bay requires dedication, pioneer spirit and tolerance for lonely weeks on barren islands.
Adjusting the Balance