MARTINEZ -- "Imagine you are a redwood. Picture your roots firmly planted in the ground. Your arms are branches and your fingers are the needles," says 'John Muir.' "Redwood trees get one third of their water from fog."
In a moment Muir, portrayed by National Park Service Ranger Frank Helling, mists the young campers with fog, in the form of a spray bottle. After squeals of delight, the kids spritz him back, noticing that the mist forms droplets that fall to the ground surrounding his feet.
This small encounter illustrates why, after 10 years, John Muir Mountain Day Camp remains a unique, homegrown treasure for families in the area and kids from across the region.
Campers are transported into naturalist Muir's world for a week of wonder, nature study, interactive entertainment and exploration of California life in the late 1880s.
"It is an unrushed experience," says Jill Harcke, camp co-director. "This is where kids come to get unplugged. Children get outside in the dirt for a week and they are richer for it."
Helling has become a regular attraction at the John Muir National Historic Site where the camp is held. The expert has been portraying John Muir for 31 years, mainly at Grant Grove in Kings Canyon National Park.
Campers are immersed in Muir's vision of the world and listen with rapt attention while he speaks to them as he might have spoken to his daughters, Helen and Wanda, who grew up on the Martinez property.
Listening to Helling tell Muir's stories is to understand why Muir went to such great lengths to describe his observations and impressions of nature.
"Everyone needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul," the famed naturalist wrote.
Harcke says that everything the campers do is related to what Muir was about in some way. "They walk in the very places where he walked."
She wrote the song that has become a camp standard, "Born to Love the Wild" that recalls the first lines of Muir's book, "Story of My Boyhood and Youth:" "When I was a boy living in Scotland, I was fond of everything wild and all of my life I've grown fonder and fonder of wild places and wild creatures."
Campers learn to make sourdough bread with 143-year-old starter. While they work the dough, they consider what the bread meant to Muir, who walked the Sierra for two weeks at a time with just two loaves of bread, and one extra in case of an emergency. He took very little, including tea, a cup and just a few other things.
While the bread rises, kids pick up their sketchbooks to follow volunteer biologist and environmental artist Christine Elder to the remaining wild area of the property. This year she assisted Harcke and Susan Barry, co-director and acclaimed Nevada City artist, manage the camp.
Elder sends campers on a treasure hunt for plants and riparian life in the remaining August trickle of Franklin Creek.
"They have to find two plants with an aroma and evidence of animal," she says.
Elder notes that art and the camp songs are not just art and music, but a way of learning flora and fauna, committing information to memory and establishing research skills. She says the experience instills a love of the John Muir legacy.
"It is the young kids that are the most excited. You have to get kids out in nature early to instill a love of it," Elder says.
Parent Karen Amos agrees. "One evening after camp I said to my younger daughter, Bess, 'What's my little camper up to?' She replies, 'I'm going to make a difference.' 'How?' I ask. 'I'm not sure yet,' she responds. 'And what's the inspiration for your desire to make a difference?' I ask. 'John Muir Camp!'"
"Then Bess continued walking around the backyard with her nature journal and colored pencils looking for the perfect plant to sketch," Amos says.
Elder makes another point: "Even if you don't think a connection to nature is important, there is the reward of self-esteem that comes from challenging themselves."
The young campers make a trek to the top of Mount Wanda for the sweeping views and big sense of accomplishment before heading back for more songs and a performance of original music by Kristen Stromm and Stephen Hein. Known as Riparia, the couple performs at environmental education venues.
Muir descendant and camp volunteer Michael Muir visits the camp and shares stories about life in the Muir and Strenzel family, and past campers come back to serve as counselors. This year, Carondelet High School student Ginna Quinlin volunteered and was joined by Gwen O'Connor.
Thanks to today's technology, campers leave their weeklong experience of yesteryear with a photograph of themselves as part of the Muir family taken on the front porch of the Muir home.
Contact Dana Guzzetti at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 925-202-9292.