I sat under the hand-notched timbers of a traditional southern Appalachian mid-eighteenth century style barn, dark rain clouds overhead. I listened as a dozen kids described their adventures that week and I admired the handmade medallion necklaces they had just completed. Propped on a woodworking bench opposite me sat G., a beautiful eleven year old Latina girl, recounting the story they had heard the night before around the fire circle. She and her nineteen companions from Miami were spending the week at Buffalo Cove Outdoor Education Center, deep in the Appalachian forest between Boone and Lenoir, North Carolina.
“We learned about nature, what plants to eat, like sourwood, wild strawberries or hemlock tips,” said L. “We’ve learned how to survive in the wilderness: eat plants or make stuff out of wood, like bows and arrows. You could even make a knife out of wood.” She said she learned how to stalk animals and she showed me the “fox walk,” putting her heel down first, then rolling slowly onto her toe.
The campers are part of the CHARLEE program, a non-profit privatized foster care organization developed in the early 1980s. It was developed on the basis of what was a new idea back then, which was “family care” as opposed to orphanages—raising kids in a family setting, with family values and a sense of belonging. CHARLEE stands for Children Have All Rights Legal, Educational and Emotional.
Buffalo Cove is open to CHARLEE kids in the summer, creating a safe learning environment for abused and neglected children, and the camp is a public facility when CHARLEE programs aren’t in session. At these times it is used as an educational opportunity for any pre-organized group that wants this outdoor experience.
Camp Director Nathan Roark began working with foster children seven years ago at Turtle Island. Since then, he has helped CHARLEE bring foster children to a number of Appalachian mountain camps to experience wilderness, back to the Earth experiential education and adventure. “I like working with kids that don’t have a whole lot to begin with.”
The camp brings children to the sub-tropical rainforest of the southern Appalachian mountains who would otherwise never have the opportunity. In this isolated, rugged and beautiful setting, the children learn group cohesion, communication skills and how to work together. Their activities—including night hiking, animal tracking and canoeing—push comfort zones and build self confidence.
Roark designed the facility to be conducive to learning ancient living skills as well as contemporary outdoor adventures. The camp tries to involve the children in the woods from a wide variety of angles. “My passion is in the traditional ways of these mountains. It’s therapeutic for me just to be here in the woods, helping, learning, playing with these kids.” In addition to teaching wilderness skills and hands-on crafts (such as making flutes, candles, maracas, birdhouses from gourds, and poplar-bark baskets), he and his staff also lead multi-day hikes, river trips and intensive activities for advanced campers who need the extra “push.”
The facility is remote and self-contained. When in base camp—a cozy valley surrounded by forest—one hears no sounds of traffic and sees no streetlights or electric lines. The camp owns 200 acres and is nestled in a deep valley that encompasses its entire watershed. The valley is rugged, with dense lush forests brimming with Solomon’s Seal, nettles, basswood, hemlocks and rushing creeks. Adjacent to the camp is 5,500 acres owned by the state where motorized vehicles are not allowed. “This will turn this area into a virtual bear sanctuary,” Roark hopes. “This camp is protected. It is an immersion experience.”
This year is the second full year of hosting children’s programs. The new camp already shows signs of wear and care: enticing trails lead into the woods from the Friendship Circle and a vegetable garden grows just below the bright kitchen.
The entire camp consists of only a handful of structures. “We wanted minimal buildings on site,” says Roark. “All are multi-faceted.” The tool barn is a covered outdoor activity area with native tulip poplar and white pine timbers harvested on-site in a traditional southern Appalachian log style. The barn was built with hand tools using a steeple notch for tight joinery. It serves as a tool and storage barn, as well as a traditional woodworking shop.
The Blacksmith Shop includes a forge and anvil and was built using mortise and tenons joined with wooden pegs. The Lodge houses the dining hall, kitchen and office. It is an open air timber frame structure with screens, in a European post-and-beam style. The camp is rounded out with a fishing pond, bath house, and two “treehouse” style sleeping shelters.
“It is empowering for the kids to see other options for living—different ways of life,” says Roark. Most of these children come from inner-city environments and have never experienced log cabins or more “primitive,” rustic structures. The children are treated to fire circles, waterfalls and open meadows for group games.
A. says he learned about archery. “I liked learning how to shoot, how to aim. You have to hold the arrow tight against the bowstring.” B. learned how to use knives and axes with an emphasis on safety and responsibility. J. learned that willow was the basis for aspirin. “But,” she warned, “it tastes nasty.” When asked what she enjoyed most, she said, “My favorite part was the waterfall and canoeing. It was a new experience because I’d never seen a waterfall before.” In addition to recounting the fireside story to me, G. told me about the plants in the forest around her: “Hemlocks have vitamin C in their leaves, and you can eat some sour plants like wood sorrel and sourwood. Jewelweed can help with poison ivy. And I know now that if I’m lost I can mark trees every 50 feet and find my way back. I’d like to teach others these things,” she announced. “It was almost like a science class. I don’t feel like littering anymore.”
Roark’s basic philosophy is that everyone is part of the circle of life, but human beings seem to think we are not connected. “We need to address this detachment issue,” he says. “I want the children to learn through activities, skills and adventures that everything we do affects something else, whether it is the environment, their friends, plant life, animal life, or pollution issues.”
He teaches the campers that they should learn to make decisions consciously so they are aware of what they are doing. “Take time to learn your surroundings,” he says. “Educate yourself—the more you know what your impact is, the more empowered you are to lessen it.”
The camp’s goal is to help these children become self-confident and aware—not scared to speak up. Roark, who has been camp counseling and directing for 15 years, has found that helping children connect directly with the Earth—taking out the middle-men—makes young people more comfortable and confident. “We want to develop people who will stand up for what is right,” Roark says. “With a positive experience in the woods, a self-confident attitude and the idea that they are part of life—these children will develop, nurture and promote their connection with the Earth. It will be with them for the rest of their lives.”