CANOES, BALD EAGLES, AND FRIENDSHIP: A Memorable Birthday Week at Legacy Camp

About the Author

Ryan is currently working as the Manager of the Children in Nature Collaborative of Austin for Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center. In this capacity he helps bring awareness, resources, and people together to help solve the children and nature issue in Austin, Texas. In 2014, Ryan participated in Children & Nature Network's Natural Leaders Legacy Camp, a valuable program that trains participants on becoming engaged grassroots organizers and outings leaders in their own communities.

W hen I applied to the 2014 Natural Leaders Network Legacy Camp, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had been told by friends that it was a once in a lifetime opportunity, but I was a little anxious about packing things up for a week and heading to West Virginia. On top of that, I would have to miss my own birthday party back home. Little did I know that just one week at Legacy Camp would inspire me and motivate me to pursue my passion and tell my story. It turned out being the best birthday of my life.

Photo courtesy of Aaron Umpierre
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Photo courtesy of Aaron Umpierre

For a young environmental professional, arriving at the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia is nothing less than jaw-dropping. If the environmentally conscious architecture, surrounding forests, and banks of the Potomac River aren’t enough to inspire you, your fellow participants and the Natural Leaders Network Staff surely will.

As our bus approached the training center’s entrance, our coach was filled with conversations, expectations, and name games as we tried to get to know our fellow participants. We shared our personal stories, photos from past outdoor excursions, and our hopes for the upcoming week. There was no doubt that I was surrounded by people who absolutely loved the outdoors. Their enthusiasm and passion for everything outdoors was contagious and I quickly found myself telling my own stories and sharing memories from outdoor adventures that I hadn’t thought of in years. This process of self-reengagement was just the first of many moments that reconnected me with my passion for the outdoors and the mission of the Children & Nature Network.

Photo courtesy of Aaron Umpierre
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Photo courtesy of Aaron Umpierre

Once we arrived at NCTC we quickly found our rooms and dropped our belongings. Our first session was held in the Roosevelt Room and there was no way I was going to miss it. We walked through the forest towards the common areas of campus and assembled on various pieces of furniture in the massive room. Our gathering started with meaningful and genuine words of welcome from the staff, but before I could even catch what was happening, a piece of chocolate pie was placed in front of me and the entire group began to sing “Happy Birthday.”

This group of strangers over fifty strong whom I had just met were cheering for me and patting me on the back as if we had known each other since grade school.

We then spent the remainder of the evening swapping various nature stories and laughing. It was in this moment that I knew something special was happening and that this birthday would be one for the record books.

The days that followed consisted of team-building activities, personal encouragement, knowledge and skill development, and daily inspiration. These activities brought us together in such a way that by the time our group made it to the daylong paddling activity, we were a family. We knew that we could count on each other as we ventured out into our canoes, and our excitement was palpable. As we paddled, we saw towering sycamores and tulip poplars along the river’s banks.

We were told that bald eagles had been seen in the area, so we kept our eyes peeled. As we pulled around a bend my canoe mate Ann shouted “Look!” She pointed towards the trees and we saw the eagle perched way up high. As we got closer, the great bird gracefully took off and flew into the distance. Ann and I, both completely overwhelmed, barely spoke until it was time to pull the boat out of the water.

As the final day of camp arrived there were many teary goodbyes, hugs, and promises to stay connected. It was clear that although we came from all of over the country and from many different backgrounds, we shared a common thread and connected with each other on a level that was anything but ordinary. We knew going in that the outdoors is the perfect place for growth and discovery.

However, it was during this particular week on the banks of the Potomac River that we discovered our own stories and found our own voice.

With these tools in hand, we were charged as natural leaders to help reconnect children and their families to the outdoors—and we will.

Back in Austin and reliving the week that has inspired me to commit my life to outdoor conservation, I can only express words of gratitude for those with the vision to bring such a group together. I know I speak for all of the Natural Leaders when I say thank you.

Additional Reading and Resources

Is Happiness the Key to Eco-Action?

Grow Outside!

The Bond of Shared Solitude: How do we stay connected to our children and spouses in the age of wall-to-wall media? Here’s one way.

Children & Nature Network Natural Leaders

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