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Summer camp is not just for kids anymore

For the first time in years, I am having warm associations with summer camp. The reason is that I have talked at length with the man, Duryea Morton, who directs the operations of the National Audubon Society's four ecology camps -- in Maine, Connecticut, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. They sound like much more fun than the Midwestern retreat where i was held captive in the summer of '49.

For one thing, Mr. Morton noted the other day in the Audubon offices in Manhattan (950 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10022), the four ecology camps are for adults only -- people 18 and on up to any age who appreciate for outdoors and want to see it in its most natural, undeveloped state, people who can do without a week or two of golf, tennis, TV, and swimming pools.

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Notice I didn't say anything about needing a degree in botany or ornithology. Audubon campers come from all walks, and to prove this, Mr. Morton read from a 1979 profile that listed occupations: doctor, editor, librarian, secretary, chemist, broker, volunteer, beekeeper, mechanic, printer, unemployed, political organizer, museum curator.

Each camp has a distinct natural setting and stresses a different field of study. the oldest is the Maine camp, which, apart from a few years during World War II, has been open every summer since 1936; it's on Hog Island, a quarter-mile into Muscongus Bay, 60 miles northeast of Portland. "Some of the early curriculum of the first session uses the word ecology, back in 1936. Obviously Earth Day brought ecology into the open 10 years ago, but in the 1930s it was a brand new science," Mr. Morton said.

Of the four campus, Connecticut's is nearest the madding crowd, and though it's only 35 miles from Times Square and 8 miles from Greenwich, the 485-acre sanctuary feels as peaceful and as long-ago as Walden Pond. The Wisconsin camp is a 330-acre sanctuary in the loon and lake country of northeast Wisconsin, near the town of Spooner. the Wyoming site is at Trail Lake Ranch in the Wind River Mountains, southeast of Jackson Hole.

The Connecticut accomodations are perhaps the poshest of the four camps -- a big white frame lodge with double rooms as opposed to dormitory-style buildings -- but the tariff isn't substantially higher: $220 for a six- day session that includes bed, board, and instruction. Wisconsin charges $220 for one week, $400 for two weeks, while Maine and Wyoming hold only two-week sessions, at $420 and these recessionary times even if the food is on the wholesome, institutional side and everyone takes a turn awaiting on tables. "For the instruction alone, somebody here figured you're paying just 50 cents a day -- and that's for top young people," Mr. Morton said.

While the Eastern and Wyoming camps tend to fill up their quotas early in the season (which runs from late June through August) there is less of a rush to Wisconsin. "I guess people think of Maine and Wyoming as particularly exotic and that the Wisconsin camp just doesn't have much going for it, but they're so wrong. It has hardwood forests, two big lakes, the St. Croix River, and that north-woods kind of magic." We were on Third Avenue, but the honking horns below might have been the Cry of loons across a Wisconsin lake at dusk.

Mr. Morton said a day in the life of a Wisconsin camper goes something like this: "We ring a bell and get 'em up at 6:30. Breakfast is at 7 or 7:15, and the first field trips go out at 8:15 or 8:30. We split the campers into four groups, 12 or 13 to a group, and one might go off on a bird walk while another stays around the site and learns weather forecasting. The Wisconsin camp has a frost pocket -- a kind of deep hollow -- where glacial ice once collected, and the temperature is always 5 to 10 degrees cooler, so they take a reading there. They give their forecast aloud at breakfast and again at supper."

There was a twinkle behind Mr. Morton's black-rimmed glasses. This was no Marine drill instructor describing life in a mess hall. "We have them stand up and give the forecast, and they take a terrific ribbing if their previous forecast has been off.Yes, we have fun. We want everyone to learn how living things survive within the environment, but we keep things light. There's a lot of very informal instruction and plenty of horseplay. Our instructors are terrible punsters. But I shouldn't tell you too much and give it all away."

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Campers have from 11:30 to 2:15 for lunch and relaxation before they head out on their afternoon rounds. "One of the highlights of Wisconsin is a bog trip," Mr. Morton said. "We own a large bog the size of a lake, and there is a board planking laid down so the people can study the plants that grow in a matting, one on top of the other, from solid earth to open water. In the evening the staff gives programs related to the day's field trips, or there may be nature walk under the stars.

"Once a week we have an outing by van or bus to a fish hatchery, or a dairy, or a cheese factory, where we may discuss how the factory is coping with pollution, whether they're just pitching out their curds. In Maine -- and I'm partial to this camp because I got my start there -- we have an all-day boat trip on Muscongus Bay. We'll dredge up a pile of marine organisms from the bottom -- worms, scallops, fish, mud -- and dump it on the deck for study."

On Wednesday afternoon and all day Sunday, the campers are off. The time is theirs, to rest, write letters, go canoeing on a swift and pure Wisconsin stream. Or as Mr. Morton put it, "The troops may go into town to do their laundry, have an ice cream soda, and look around, but they're always very glad to be back."

All of a sudden I wanted to give summer camp a second try.

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