Specimen Days

Boys will be there but your parents will not,” promised the summer camp brochures that came in winter’s mail like seed catalogs. There were pamphlets for marine biology camp in Florida, space camp in Alabama, and some sort of geology road trip called the Central Rocky Mountain Institute. “I hear scientific greatness calling me,” I said to my parents, handing over the stack of glossy pictures and application forms. “It’s for my education,” I insisted.


“Education” was the sort of trigger word that could induce a highly suggestible trance state in my parents. I could have used this knowledge for evil purposes by turning them into middle-class zombie assassins. But instead I got them to write a check for the road trip science camp, and the state of Wisconsin enjoyed another year’s reprieve from the destabilizing effects of political assassination.

I would be caravanning with two dozen sixteen-year-olds and a handful of counselors, trekking from our home in Wisconsin to the wilds of Montana, exploring geological points of interest along the way. It was intriguing: How could a point be both “of interest” and “geological”?

The trip would be my third and final science-camp experience. “Serial Science Camper” was not an instinctive niche for me, personally. If Amnesty International had run human-rights youth camps, it might have been a better fit for my particular enthusiasms. Or if my parents had splurged on installing cable television in August, sitting on the couch watching TV might also have been a good fit. As it turned out, my fellow science campers were just like me. Perhaps not quite as cool or self-assured as the teenagers attending camps for pom pon or basketball, they were definitely on more solid social footing than RenFair types who went to band camp. But the true future geniuses of the Midwest didn’t show up, sleeping bags at the ready, when it came time to answer the call to muster. My guess is that they imagined the relentlessness of the peer contact involved and decided to take a pass.

The counselors at science camps tended to favor detached observation and note-taking over cheerful boosterism, and I found them to be refreshing counterpoints to the capture-the-flag-loving, sunny-day-hooray! counselors I had crossed swords with during my years at YMCA camp. Y-camp counselors were known to blow whistles while forcing a person to swim farther or run faster, but science-camp counselors refrained from unnecessary noise or motion so as not to scare off a possible specimen. At worst, a science-camp counselor could only bore you, and even then you could just relax and stand there while it happened.

The first of the camps I attended was held at Pigeon Lake Field Station in Wisconsin’s Chequamegon National Forest. It was a lot like college: We could sleep in, skip breakfast, and then drag ourselves at the last minute to a class that had seemed fascinating when we first signed up for it but in which we quickly lost interest. We dwelt in a forest—a place of gentle shadows, low roofs, screen doors, and instant best friends. We tromped over pine needles and ducked under pine boughs when it was time to learn orienteering or venture out to the nearby bog. My favorite class was the mysteriously titled “Avian Aftermath.” After we took our seats, each student was issued a pair of tweezers and an oblong, fuzzy, gray lump called an “owl pellet” to dissect. As we pulled apart the hairy mass, slender white lengths of bone appeared. These we plucked out of the pellet and delicately placed to the side. When this dissection had reduced the pellet to a large pile of fluff, a stack of tiny ribs, spines, and skulls remained: the inedible parts of the owl’s supper. Our instructor then taught us how to identify the mice and moles by their ingested skeletons.

One night we hiked into a dark part of the woods, two by two, and placed Wintergreen Lifesavers in our mouths before turning toward a partner and extinguishing our flashlights. On the count of three, we all crunched down on the mints, and were impressed to see blue-green sparks flickering in one another’s mouths. The triboluminescence heightened with increased friction. Wanting to put on a good show, we pulled back our lips and gnashed our teeth violently.

The next fall, I took part in Trees for Tomorrow, a name that will be familiar to the tens of thousands of students who have passed through the Eagle River, Wisconsin, campus. The program was held over a long October weekend, in a harsh, wet woodland where gray skies misted the unfortunate with a ceaseless drizzle. We trudged to local lumber mills and learned the finer points of forestry “resource management.” Recalls alumna Kristy Robb, perfectly capturing the thrill-inducing gestalt of the place, “We didn’t have enough warm clothing to be standing under a tree for what felt like hours, hearing someone drone on about the damned tree.”

By the following summer, a combination of hormones and pop culture had dulled my ability to focus during lectures. Luckily, the Central Rocky Mountain Institute was heavy on hiking and exploration. After parents had dropped off their campers in a central Wisconsin parking lot, the counselors confiscated all the Walkmen and informed us that both napping and listening to the radio were verboten during the all-day van rides. “I gave up smoking for this?” I thought. But with nothing else to do, we entertained one another with jokes and stories until we were as close as cousins—kissing cousins, in some cases. We slept in cramped and malodorous tents, cooked our food in a makeshift mess hall, and endured limited access to running water. We always carried canteens, knives, rope, and bandannas. In Montana, we marched up the mountain every morning and tripped down the mountain every night, ankle deep in wildflowers and singing like von Trapps.

And the geological points of interest were a wondrous backdrop for our bonhomie. No glacier-wrought handiwork went unappreciated. Every volcanic nip and tuck was celebrated. We explored kettle moraines, camped in the Badlands, and wandered through Yellowstone’s geothermal funhouse. A few times we went digging for fossils, and we were allowed to keep our findings, which was a rare treat. Our instructors’ reverence for conservation occasionally conflicted with our natural teenage urge to vandalize. When some of us girls picked flowers to adorn our greasy, unwashed hair, we were tensely reprimanded, “Collection of botanical specimens is not allowed in national parks.” When we were returned to our parents, sunburnt and ravenous, we had a new appreciation for … well, for being away from our parents, I suppose.

But like the mammoths whose bones we marveled at, the age of the co-ed science camp was coming to a close. I attribute it in large part to Time’s 1982 Man of the Year: the computer. As I grew out of summer-camp age and into adulthood, the concept of “science” became tethered to computers, and computers were tethered to the electric grid. Computer-camp programs sprung up in the vacant lab spaces that universities could spare during the summer, and their success confirmed that students would accept a science camp divorced from actual camping. As the trend grew, math, engineering, and robotics camps blossomed, but ecology field camps withered. At the same time, the academic community recognized that boys were pulling ahead of girls in science achievement, so single-sex day camps were created to free girls from the distraction and self-consciousness of the co-ed classroom. Had I been born twenty years later, I would still have gone to science camp—but I would have left both my pocket knife and my lip gloss at home. It wouldn’t have been an adventure, and it wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun.

Of the camps I attended, only Trees for Tomorrow, which gets support from “the forest products and electric utility industries” is still active (and, judging from the raingear-clad participants on its website, the fieldwork environment hasn’t changed much in the last fifteen years). The sylvan paradise of the Pigeon Lake Field Station is now available, on a rental basis, for conferences. The Central Rocky Mountain Institute, never much more than some dedicated teachers, a map, and a couple vans, is just a memory. No scientist myself, all I have retained from those summers is a partial mole skeleton and a knack for juvenile puns using the term “kettle hole.”