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A Taste of Camping -- S'mores and All

September 27, 2003|Jenifer Ragland | Times Staff Writer

The dirt, the bugs, the whole sleeping outside thing -- it was all new to Ventura resident Janet Ortega.

In all her 37 years, she had never been camping. And although it was something her 7-year-old son had begged her to do, she really didn't know where to begin.

Where to go? How to set up a tent? What to eat?

Demystifying the great outdoors for people like Ortega is the idea behind Family Camp, a program in its third year run by the National Forest Service, which forms partnerships with various nonprofit groups and schools in Santa Barbara and surrounding counties.

Ortega and her son, Jose Luis Lara, joined 12 other families at Paradise Campground in Solvang last month, in a weekend trip sponsored by the Forest Service and the Santa Barbara Botanical Gardens.

The families, all from an after-school program designed for low-income parents at Cleveland School in Santa Barbara, learned about plants and animals on nature hikes, mastered how to set up a dome tent and even discovered that great camping staple: s'mores.

"It's really nice, getting out and having some fresh air," said Ortega, sitting at a picnic table under one of the many oak trees that shade the spacious campground.

"It would be difficult for us to do this on our own. We don't have any equipment."

The Los Padres National Forest program, funded in part with revenue from the Forest Service's Adventure Pass, is run by Nina Marcoux, a conservation education specialist.

Families who take part in the weekend program learn about public lands, local wildlife and plant life, and fire and camping safety. They also participate in science and art activities such as creating their own "Fam Camp" journals.

The Forest Service provides food, sleeping bags, tents and other equipment.

Officials estimate the Forest Service spends about $500 per camp-out, and the weekend is free for families.

"It's been shown that kids learn better when parents are involved," Marcoux said.

"Through education, we connect these families with wilderness and create compassion for the wilderness. The end result is they become better stewards of the land."

The program is gaining popularity with local families. Three years ago, Marcoux led five camp-outs. This summer she led 13, and "people are already asking about next year," she said.

Many of the families from Cleveland School that took part in Family Camp were sad to leave when the camp-out ended Sunday afternoon.

In two days, they had hiked in the wilderness, explored a creek, played with fire hoses when the Forest Service firetruck came by for a demonstration, made spaghetti on a camp stove, toasted marshmallows and gazed at Mars through a telescope.

"I want to go camping again," said Itzel Perez,7, of Santa Barbara. "We saw animals and we saw ponds and we saw plants. And it was so much fun."

Isidro Olvera said time away from modern distractions helped him bond with his son, David, 8.

"At home, he likes to do his things and I like to do mine," said Olvera, who lives in Carpinteria. "Out here, there's no TVs, no Game Boy -- just us. And we had a really good talk last night."

Olvera said he and his wife, Christina, were planning to come back to the campground on their own in three or four weeks.

Still, others, like Ortega, were somewhat relieved to be getting back to familiar territory.

Referring to his mother, Jose Luis summed it up succinctly: "There were too many bugs for her."

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For more information on Family Camp, call (805) 961-5771.

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