MARTINEZ -- Fun, friends and fresh insights top the list of reasons kids want to go to camp, but Brennan Gregor never expected time travel.
Last year, 10-year-old Brennan stepped back into the late 1880s world of John Muir and noticed time flying by at Muir Mountain Day Camp.
"It really feels like the day goes by in half the time," Brennan said.
Absorbing John Muir's heightened awareness of nature made Brennan want to come back for more.
Camp Director Jill Harcke characterizes the "immersion experience" that takes place at the John Muir National Historic Site in Martinez.
"Muir Mountain Camp is more than nature study, it is a place for creativity in art, journaling, music and building a set of practical skills," she said.
Brennan already has a certain aptitude for self-sufficiency thanks to his father, Joel Gregor. This summer, the elder Gregor has volunteered to bring ancient skills to life for Muir Mountain campers by demonstrating how Native Americans could light a fire with just two sticks.
Joel Gregor knows about tools of the past and how to use them, because he makes cultural surveys of prospective construction sites at work, and because it is his passion.
When inquisitive Brennan, his classmates and friends in Scouts watch two sticks burst into flame, or scrutinize a handmade spear point with Joel filling in the blanks, it is easy to imagine life in centuries past.
"There are hundreds of Native American sites in the Bay Area," Joel said.
There was evidence of that during the time that John Muir explored the Sierra and the Bay Area, mostly on foot.
"Nels Nelson mapped more than 420 shell mounds in 1907," Gregor added.
The practice of making sourdough bread from scratch with 143-year-old sourdough starter, and stretching creative instincts to devise new inventions are other reasons Brennan says he is going to return to camp.
"It is very interesting to make sourdough bread. But my favorite part is when you are hiking up Mount Wanda and you can't even see the town," Brennan explained.
"We stop for lunch and talk about the four groups of plants, and then, when you get to the top, you see the open space."
There is a sweeping view of Carquinez Strait and the Delta from Mount Wanda, a place that Muir named for the older of his two daughters, and where he hiked with them.
Brennan's whole family is excited about the one-of-a kind camp.
"The big draw is that it is in nature and (there) is learning about John Muir who has such a phenomenal impact on the beautiful places," said Brennan's mother, Marla Prada, Concord CARES afterschool program manager.
"The first thing is that it is a safe environment. There are creative art projects, and experiencing nature and being outside," Prada observed.
"Kids spend a lot of time on devices. Muir camp gives them the freedom of less structure, where they are free to be themselves and learn appreciation of nature."
Harcke always recruits a variety of guest presenters who share some personal knowledge from the realm of John Muir.
Muir descendant Michael Muir of Access Adventure, National Park Ranger Frank Helling (as John Muir), Dan'l Mcllhenny performing songs from the John Muir Tribute, Dr. Bonnie Gisel of LeConte Memorial Lodge (in Yosemite) as Dr. Nature, and children's book author Donnell Rubay are among past presenters.
The list of guests for this year will remain a surprise.
An encounter with Frank Helling as John Muir is unforgettable for adults and children alike. When the tall bearded man speaks quietly about everyday life in his times, or how he set out for a walk to Yosemite with a pocket full of dough balls, some tea, a tin cup, and a bedroll, it is easy to visualize.
During a week at the seven-acre John Muir National Historic Site, kids can walk where Muir walked, study the 1882 Victorian home he lived in, and see the writing desk in the top-floor "Scribble Den" where the famed naturalist and founder of the Sierra Club worked.
Contact Dana Guzzetti at email@example.com or call 925-202-9292.
WHAT: John Muir Mountain Day Camp for ages 8-12
WHEN: 8:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; different sessions July 28-Aug. 1, Aug. 4-8
WHERE: John Muir National Historic Site, 4202 Alhambra Ave., Martinez
COST: $275 per camper, per session; discounts, scholarships available
INFORMATION: www.johnmuirassociation.org/muircamp or call 510-701-3254