District News

YES Camp provides 12 years of student environmental adventures

By Gail Heathman | Aug 12, 2011

(Photo by: Gail Heathman) Mark Ethridge, a Tuscola High School teacher who leads the YES camps, tell Keri Warren about the erosion potential on unseeded banks.

Mark Ethridge, king of the YES Camp (ask any student who’s attended) has a stock answer for students who, in the midst of a hike in a quiet forest or while standing in a shallow mountain stream, ask what time it is.

“Summertime,” he resonds.

Time to live in the present. Time to figure out whether the aquatic insect you’re looking at is a mayfly or a stonefly, or if the red chunk in that rock could possibly be a ruby. Time to consider whether the haze obscuring the distant mountains is fog – or smog. Time to listen carefully to the park ranger about exactly how to handle the salamander in the Ziploc bag you’re holding so that you can release it, unharmed, back onto the forest floor.

For those wondering what the YES Camp is, or who Mark Ethridge is, chances are they aren’t a former student whose memory of the camp brings out a wistful smile, nor one of the parents who have glowing things to say about the camp.

“YES” stands for Youth Environmental Stewardship. It was not always named the YES Camp. Originally, when it was established a dozen years ago for rising eighth graders, the camp carried a loftier title: Mountain Environmental Institute.

Fortunately, Ethridge proved to be a forgiving sort of guy. Mark – a.k.a. “Coach E” – is a much-loved environmental science teacher at Tuscola High who, incredibly, never seems to tire of teenagers.

When most teachers are — understandably — ready for some R&R from their demanding jobs at school, Ethridge is driving kids around the mountains in a school bus, teaching them about natural resources like our water (it begins here in the mountains!) and forestry (it, too, began here – though not exactly in the same way).

He makes students laugh. He breaks into song frequently. Should it become necessary, he can be tough as nails. And he loves the kids. Why else would one man pack up tents, air mattresses, cooking stoves, tarps, camp chairs and popup canopies for just one night in Cataloochee Valley so the kids could have the camp’s grand finale, the overnight camping trip?

Some are experienced campers. Some have never been. None forget it.

Here’s what this year’s campers have to say about their experience on  evaluation forms filled after the camp ended.

One student had penciled in the words “IS AWESOME!” in capital letters following the words “YES Camp,” changing the title at the top of the page into a statement. And since he was filling out an evaluation on the week that included a hike at the Pink Beds to see beaver habitat and mountain bogs, Sliding Rock, a search for aquatic critters in Richland Creek, hiking up to Devil’s Courthouse then down into Graveyard Fields and snorkeling in the Pigeon River beside Jukebox Junction, all deserved fives, the highest score, in this student’s opinion.

One question on the evaluation form asks, “What are some important things you learned?

The responses are both varied and enlightening.

“A lot goes into sanitizing water for us to drink and if we all recycled, then taxes would decrease.” “I will most definitely watch what I do to make sure it doesn’t hurt the environment.” “I will take more care in all aspects of waste disposal.” “I learned the importance of preventing erosion and recycling every chance I get. We will start using fewer plastic bags when we shop.”“I learned at the Cradle of Forestry how to use a Biltmore stick.” (A Biltmore stick is a tool used by foresters to determine the amount of wood in a tree.)“No matter where the water is at, it will be re-used over and over.”“The Richland Balsam hike was really pretty, and it was fun to mark every place we went on the GPS.”

“The elk were amazing.” “When we went to Purchase Knob, we listened to a water bear song. I will never forget it!”

That last statement may conjure up a picture of some sort of singing bear, hardly something that fits with teaching young people about nature and science. Actually, water bears, known as tardegrades, are amazing microscopic creatures that can live for many, many years in a dormant state — in this case, on lichens – until roused by water.

Viewed under a microscope, they have claws and stocky bodies that resemble bears. Termed “the hardiest animal on earth”, tardegrades have even been launched into space to determine whether they could survive incredibly harsh conditions, which they did.

Most folks are unaware they co-exist with the cute critters. But thanks to a visit to Purchase Knob, YES campers know, and it’s possible one or two could even be persuaded to sing that unforgettable song.

If not, typing “the water bear song” into a search engine will satisfy the reader’s curiosity. But as Park Ranger Emily Darling warned the YES Campers, beware – it’s hard to get that song out of your mind once you hear it.Whether discovering water bears seen through a microscope, hiking through beaver habitat, gazing at the beautiful lake that supplies Waynesville with its drinking water, learning that countless items in the Haywood County landfill could have been recycled, catching a speedy and determined salamander or staring with awe at a large and imposing elk, YES students see the world through different eyes by the time camp is over.

The number of students attending the camp is relatively small, usually 15 per week. But when it comes to the potential for impacting their world, some teachers understand, perhaps more than anyone else, how a spark, ignited within, can lead to important change.

The YES Camp is offered by Haywood Soil and Water Conservation District with Mark Ethridge as its lead teacher. Funding provided by the Pigeon River Fund has made it possible to keep the cost of the camp affordable both to students and to the district

Gail Heathman is the education coordinator of the Haywood Soil and Water Conservation District.