Seven attentive youngsters clustered around Nancy Dawson Dollard, park ranger in charge of the Environmental Education Office in San Diego County's Parks and Recreation Department. The day's program was camp cooking--part of Nature Skills Week at Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve.
"Who wants to help?" Dollard asked. Seven eager hands went up.
The Junior Rangers, ages 8 to 12, were about to learn to prepare a complete meal. Cooking would take place over charcoals set inside a galvanized washtub.
This is the third year of Junior Ranger Day Camp, a program designed for third- through sixth-graders. It is managed by Parks and Recreation and staffed by interns from the recreation department at San Diego State University. The North County programs are based in Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve in Rancho Penasquitos and at San Dieguito Park in Solana Beach.
New topics are featured each week. Today, after a morning of work on their camp cooking skills, the children were to spend the afternoon playing games and building a raft to sail across the nearby creek.
Camp cooking is taught outside the historic Johnson Taylor Adobe House in the preserve.
"Remember, we have to stay 10 feet away from any brush or building and overhanging trees," Dollard told the children as they created their makeshift oven.
One volunteer cleared away leaves, others brought rocks needed to level the tub. Dollard poured a mound of charcoal into the tub, lighting it carefully. "Boy! this is going to be fun stuff!" exclaimed Monica Robertson, 8.
For the main course, the children made foil packets filled with vegetables and diced ham. They cleaned ears of corn and tucked them back in their husks for roasting.
"Who likes corn bread?" Dollard asked. "I'll show you how to bake it inside an orange that is cut in half." Seven hands grabbed for spoons to hollow out the fruit.
Adam Gomez, 12, whose orange baking mold was hollowed in record time, savored the juicy pulp. "My mom signed me up for this," he said, pushing a Paradise Beach Club baseball cap back from his forehead. "But I really want to be an archeologist when I grow up."
The youngsters poured batter into the oranges, then wrapped each in foil for cooking with the rest of the meal.
The wait for a taste of camp cuisine tried the patience of a few team members. "This is taking a long time," complained Remy Berman, 9, a self-proclaimed spaghetti expert.
But the promise of chocolate chip-filled banana boats caught the attention of Remy and her classmates. Soon, bananas were being sliced lengthwise with plastic knives.
"I have a canoe! No, a kayak," said Remy, topping her boat with chocolate and peanut butter chips and a few raisins.
"Wrap your boat (with the) foil shiny-side down," Dollard told them.
"This is a great way to learn not only about nature skills, but also about cooperation and working as a team," Dollard said during a few seconds' respite.
A cry of dismay suddenly demanded her attention. An ominous puff of smoke was escaping from one of the foil packets. Dollard, surrounded by a crowd of excited children, quickly removed the packets from the fire.
"What happened here?" she asked, slowly pulling back the foil to reveal several shrunken, charcoal-like nuggets.
"We cooked it too long!" came a chorus of replies.
The rest of the meal fared better. The corn bread, corn on the cob and banana boats received a thumbs-up from the chefs.
Still, when the morning's activities were over, the Junior Rangers opened their lunch boxes from home.
"My cooking stank except for the banana boat," said Adam Gomez as he took a bite of sandwich.
Ben Baker, soft drink poised in the air, put it more succinctly: "I love to camp, but if I had to survive on what I cooked today, I'd starve!"