Each year in October, Free Union’s fourth and fifth graders head off to Coopers Cove Wildlife Sanctuary, owned by Burgundy Farm Country Day School, for two packed-solid days immersed in nature, studying wildlife, having too much fun, and deepening relationships with friends.
Early Thursday morning we gathered at Free Union, already pulling out the warmer items on our packing list owing to the cool temperatures. John handed out copies of permission slips and students played around the stump circle and the pumpkins already on hand for the upcoming harvest festival, talking about the things they looked forward to doing. There were friendly wishes for the departing parents and students; veterans of Cove judged the weather conditions close to ideal. We started leaving in batches around 8:30 in the morning after consolidating children and gear.
On arrival, there was a scramble in the cabins to pick out the ideal bunk. After dropping off our sleeping bags and gear we pulled out our hiking packs and lunches and dropped them off near the main cabin, which housed main office, work porches, kitchen, and the big room. We followed the guidance of the kick-off board and added tags to our jackets so the Cove staff could learn our names. Vini, the head of the Cove program, and her new counselors, Steve, Whitney, and Eliza, circulated among the children and rookie parents and guided them to adventures near the big room.
Beth, clearly a veteran and a Cove professional (and as I learned later, with experience as a Burgundy Farm teacher), pointed out the hammocks put away under the eaves of the main room, noting they would be popular for parents during free time later in the afternoon.
Sebby, Liam, Seth, Henry, and Jason headed for the stream and started exploring from the small wooden bridges. Beth soon picked out a citation crawfish, skillfully avoiding pincers.
After a few pictures of the explorers, I joined Sarah, Megan, and Courtney lounging and chatting in the big circle (an outdoor grouping of wooden benches off the big room). Sarah was knitting and offered to make a ball to complete my stocking cap. They jokingly agreed to a pre-caffeine-withdrawal photograph.
The main party of campers showed up just before noon. The veterans showed a host of secrets to the rookies: the tick jar in each cabin, the stuffed birds in the big room (Julien pointed out a Coopers Hawk seen on drive-up). John shared a big secret that those in the boy’s cabin should sleep on the stream side as that always made him drowsy. Eliza later mentioned that less rain at the end of summer meant a smaller stream, but brought the benefit of much less mosquitoes.
Once all assembled in the big circle, Vini ran through some key safety items. Stay on the trails, even near the main cabin. No running. The boundaries were set for the children, and for parents - stay where you are comfortable that you can hear the bell ringing! Let us know if you’re going for a big hike by plotting it on the chalkboard. Indoor voices, outside too (recalled, but loosely enforced, at a polar bear plunge the next morning).
After the quick review of safety issues, John split us into three groups for a hike. We would all eventually rendezvous and eat lunch together.
“Imagine you are a European explorer new to Appalachia,” said Vini, charging the children with a mission. “What would capture your interest, what would be new, what would bring you wonder?”
John, Vini, and Eliza led the three separate hiking groups. With John on the Whippoorwill trail, we first came to an interesting draw heading uphill. It looked like a small creek, but on examination the hikers realized the source of the spring originated in a cave. The wide, rocky draw was actually the remnants of a larger collapsed cave; the spring was the main water source for the camp. John, who first came to Cove as an 11-year-old as well, recalled being able to drink directly from the spring.
None of the hikers seemed to struggle with their packs, but seeing Irene move along the edge of the draw to take pictures of the stream, I noticed she didn’t have a one. “Oh yeah, Elliott is carrying my lunch.” Cove Professional.
As we continued up the trail the explorers found interesting chalky rocks and an abundance of hickory nuts. John set a forgiving pace, during one stop he explained what had changed since his first visits, notably the introduction of an invasive grass species, and the hope of seeing a logged adjacent area recover with time (but the sadness of hearing nonstop chainsaws one camping year).
We discovered massive sinkholes as further evidence of cave systems. Rollo discovered a stick bug and soon other campers found more of the well-camouflaged bugs on the trail (often to the genuine amazement of parents). We heard the namesake of the trail. The last several hundred feet we lost the trail amidst scattered lichen-covered rocks, but with little brush under the evergreens dotting the rise of the hill the final pitch of our hike was clear enough. We joined Vini’s group spread out on the larger rocks already enjoying lunch.
A fire tower, built in 1953 and at least six stories high, was visible 50 meters beyond us, but personnel were servicing it, so we kept some distance.
Fifteen or twenty minutes later the third group joined us at the summit. A sweaty Liz, muttering something about bushwhacking, sat near Bruce and me. She took a few pictures of Ruthie with her Ipad.
I pointed at the device and asked Liz if she knew the wifi password.
“No.” She replied.
“I think it’s Snipehunt.”
Just because Bruce laughs, it does not mean you are a Cove Professional.
After lunch, the counselors passed out paper and pencils, challenging the children to document and illustrate their hiking discoveries.
Several of the campers brainstormed names for what would be new sights for European explorers (crawfish would almost certainly have new branding).
Christine moved to draw a better landscape view of the distant ridges. Reese did an Audubon-worthy portrait of a leaf.
After collecting the scientific documentation, John discussed some of the geological features of Ben’s Knob roughly 2,000 feet above sea level and the top of Cooper’s Mountain. His campers noted sandstone rocks dotted the knob, while limestone rocks were more prevalent at the beginning of the trail.
We descended the steep section of the Knob on a different path. Close to the parking lot, Jason pointed out the persimmon tree. John, Bruce, and Rollo tried some perimmon, judging them a fickle fruit. Ripe ones are excellent, but apparently nonripe ones taste like a mouthful of sour doghair.
Two big adventures awaited the children when they reassembled at camp (parents were allowed to take a break). One group moved to the back porch to begin carving pumpkins, the other group moved to the fields around the barn to practice orienteering with Vini.
John, Beth, and Megan helped the pumpkin carvers while some parents found the hammocks that stretched across the main stream. It’s not tough to set them up, or get into them or dismount, but capsizing in sight of the pumpkin-carving table presumably carries a steep cost to one’s ego. Thankfully, the hammocks didn’t embarrass anyone, but one troublemaker shared photographic evidence of hammock time with a spouse unable to attend. That Board Co-Chair, Sarah, will go unnamed. The possible view from a Cove hammock is below.
Every pumpkin was special, but Mergie probably would have won a county fair contest. Turned on its side, its stem formed a wicked and unforgettable snout.
Some of the pumpkins also looked carsick, drooling seeds and innards. Perhaps they tried unripe persimmons. Elizabeth had a simple design with cool eyes. Maya effortlessly carved out the flawless silhouette of a cat. Penny, having trouble scooping out the innards, appealed to John for assistance. “It helps if you think of it as cleaning out brains,” he said helpfully.
After trying both experiences the campers had a couple of hours of free time before dinner. I joined Sebby, Liam, and other boys heading for the pond, while other groups headed to a swing, the stream, and other adventures.
Earlier, Sebby caught me trying to decipher the chore sign-up board in the main room. He confidently informed me that monitoring the pond was the correct afternoon chore selection. I took up the rear of the fishing band hiking to the pond, which also included Beth. I arrived to find Liam already casting from the dock. Sebby soon caught a fish as did Liam and others, all posing with their trophies before releasing them back into the cool water. A few bystanders decided to take off their shoes and sit on the dock and treat their feet to the cool water.
Hannah, Rollo, Cecilia, and Edith found an old pear tree near the pond. Like the persimmons, a few turned out to be unripe, but the campers judged most of the fruit excellent.
Liam shared with his friends that holding a fish by the lip worked best (you don’t get too slimy). It’s also best if your hand is wet when you pick up a fish, otherwise you risk damaging their scales. He brought a special mouse lure to try and catch a whopper bass, but didn’t put it into action.
Vini arrived at the pond on her mountain bike as groups of four campers tried rotated turns on the paddleboat. As she started shepherding folks back to prepare for dinner, the fishermen asked for a few more casts. “There’s a thin line between fishing and gambling. Just one more roll...,” said Vini.
Dinner was a great spaghetti meal with salad and garlic bread. Unfortunately, we had a lot of ORTS (uneaten leftovers), but the fourth and fifth graders were thoughtful in setup and cleanup (Karen’s homeroom had dinner, John’s breakfast).
At Cove, you eat family style. Food arrives in serving bowls, and everyone stays at the table to engage in conversation. It’s a chance to unwind after a long day and share stories. It’s also important that you bring out any devices and check the news. NOPE. That’s Cove Unprofessional.
Irene and Elliott surprised Oscar with a birthday chocolate cake after the meal. They also provided very popular cupcakes and popsicles.
On KP (kitchen patrol cleanup), Liz, Courtney, Nicholas, and I worked with a rotating hardworking group of fourth and fifth graders. Vini assigned me to work “Scotty”, the dilithium powered warp speed dishwashing machine. Soon the students formed an efficient assembly line; Tilda, Rollo and then Reese ran the last stage before the dishes, pans, cups, and utensils entered Scotty. The work went fast and without complaint, but soon Ruthie and others reported breathlessly to the serving counter, “we’re getting ready to go to the barn dance!” Which sped up the workers even faster.
Arriving late at the lantern-lit barn, the KP team saw the campers already arranged in four lines. Vini, now in country overalls, explained the Virginia Reel we would soon begin. It took a while, but the fourth and fifth graders and most of the parents learned the basics. Vini joined Eliza, Bruce, David, and John on instruments, as Whitney called out dance instructions for the floor. We did three or more repetitions, with surprising snake, bird, and turtle moves to keep the dancers alert.
After the dance we sat down on the wooden floors, and John led the classes as they reflected on the day. Remy talked of how much she enjoyed carving her pumpkin. Ruthie, the hard pear she tried to eat. Jason liked the practice using a compass. Oscar relished the low light pollution of the night.
John let small groups leave the barn in short intervals, encouraging them to listen and enjoy the night walk and the bright, waxing gibbous moon. We were treated to a path of lanterns and lit pumpkins, guiding us to a bonfire!
Arriving at the bonfire the fourth and fifth graders wrote down their thoughts or added drawings to capture some memories of the day in their journals. Parents held flashlights for the artists and writers, as Vini and John tended the fire. John told the sad story of the great West Virginia marshmallow famine, and the horrors of camping marred by flaming treats turned into napalm. Miraculously, campfire sticks appeared and a shipment of endangered marshmallows. Soon, campers tried to achieve the coppery exterior, mushy center marshmallow zen perfection of legend. Some failed, but many succeeded. No one caught fire.
At the end of the campfire, we headed off the hill and on trails cut through the high grass back to the cabins. The counselors, outfitted with green lasers, pointed out constellations. We saw Cygnus - the Swan, Draco, the little dipper, and Cassiopeia. We could see a little of the Milky Way in the clear skies, though the bright moon worked against us.
Back at the camp, we started settling in for the night. Elliott informed me that the showers only had cold water and was correct. I felt it qualified as a polar plunge on its own.
John played music for the boys, as Vini and Eliza did the same for the girls. Dave explained to Bruce and Sarah the process for setting up breakfast in the morning, the key takeaways being to immediately start the coffee pots, and not set your face on fire while starting the oven.
We were treated to a quiet night, free from acorns hitting the metal roof or critters fighting over trash. John was right about the lullaby of the stream.
Before 7 a.m. campers started gathering off the back porch to go take the polar plunge at the pond. Eliza led the excited mob through a few guidelines: no jumping off the dock, no splashing, and every effort made not to scream. The hike down to the pond showed fog lifting off the water; campers hung their towels on a line by the canoes and started talking themselves up.
Liam entered the water first. Then came the avalanche:
“IT’S SO COLD!”
“I CAN’T FEEL MY BODY!”
“NOT A GOOD IDEA!”
“HOLY SMOKES, WOW!”
Henry paddled 20 strokes per meter. Jason lost his flip flops but kept his hair dry. Elizabeth paddled her arms in the air. Liam went in a second time. Campers started going around the dock. Beth went underwater. Nicholas started doing stretches as Elliott coached him on what to expect. Reese went in the water in slow motion. As he was coming back to shore, Nicholas flopped on his back in the water. More flip flops surfaced as swimmers went under.
John arrived. “My hands are cold and I am holding a cup of coffee,” he gasped.
“These kids are made of granite,” Elliott replied. “The outside air is colder than last year!”
Elliott, Irene, Eliza, and I were the last at the dock, as cold campers hurried back to change and warm up in the cabins. Someone left black and white paw print pajama bottoms on the towel line.
“I could make some great fuzzy dice with those,” said Elliott.
“You can’t do that, they’re endangered,” said Irene.
Eliza pointed out the abundant bowl and doily spiderwebs in the dew.
Edith bounded back the trail to reclaim her beloved snow leopard pajamas.
After the Free Union campers devoured a breakfast of pancakes, bacon, and fruit, everyone met to go over bird sightings. The Burgundy center keeps a careful tally of observations. Once the fourth and fifth graders completed the morning bird survey with Vini and Whitney, campers placed sandwich orders with parents.
Later, at the big circle, the Cove Staff and John talked about options for morning adventures, including a snake hunt, pond monster search, pear canning, bird walk, and bird/rat dissection.
I followed the group enchanted with the pond monster search led by Eliza. Fishing nets, along with some rods, appeared. It wasn’t long before screams of “REEL HIM IN” came. Searchers fanned out with nets along the cattails, Henry caught a giant tadpole that Steve said was the biggest he’d ever seen. Explorers also found snails and dragonfly larvae. The pear team near the pond took turns working the basket pole to retrieve fresh pears in higher branches.
Several parents noted the perfect weather conditions to hunt for a monster and gravitated toward the pond: a clear sky with small dots of clouds on the horizon, warm sun, strong, intermittent breezes. Pond monsters dig the onset of sweater weather.
Separately, Claire, Eleanor, and Sarah were in quiet concentration as Vini led a course in comparative anatomy. Claire gushed that they had Vini to themselves, ‘I hope she remembers me next year!”
Hannah found a terrific set of bones and liked the lone garter snake captured by her group. Bruce tried to show the snake to some of the parents gathering in the big room, but it wasn’t as popular as billed. The snake eluded Bruce and decided it would have more fun under the big room, than inside the big room.
The inseparable Remy, Tilda, and Elizabeth offered each other variations on their names after Ruthie pointed out the difficulties of Liz being around Liz. The canning team cut pears and kept up a steady stream of laughter in the dining room. Elizabeth fretted over the larger knife she had to use, but there were no emergencies. They moved into the kitchen to preserve heated pears. The group said the toughest part was not cleaning and heating things, but the cutting and the shredding of the pears into bitesize bits.
As morning adventures ended, campers began packing their things and starting their final chores. Small pink signs on the walls described key tasks. Whitney shared that it is best to ask cleaners to mop one square at a time in the main room. Cove Professional. Signs by every door also warned against the greatest of Cove felonies: slamming screen doors. A favorite one, of either Mr. T or a Genie, read, “I pity the fool who slams the door!”
Chores finished, (some) pumpkins claimed, cars packed, the happy group gathered in the circle for one last meeting before returning to Free Union.
“Cove is a magical place,” John began, “but it’s easy to forget that there is hard work behind the magic.” Pumpkins don’t get lit and place themselves on night walks after a barn dance. Cove Staff did a lot of hard magical work.
Penny offered the first put up, her thanks to Eliza for helping her with fishing.
Remy and Oscar followed. Lachlan spoke of the great fun she had at the barn dance.
Elizabeth (Liz) did a put up to David for the pear canning, and thanked Tilda for being her partner at the barn dance.
Vini and Eliza were thanked for their harmonies (the evening bedtime treat for the girls).
Seth made a put up for a birdwalk that morning.
Bruce thanked John for the Cove connection. Nicholas thanked everyone for this jewel of an experience. Courtney appreciated folks for sharing their knowledge of the many wondrous things she observed.
The fourth and fifth graders ended their put ups and then it was all over. Time to go home.