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Summer Youth Camps

Each summer, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) offers kids, ages 9-16, a unique outdoor adventure experience, based on conservation, firearm safety and outdoor skills.

The Ocala Outdoor Adventure Camp, which has run for more than 50 years, is centrally located in Florida at the FWC’s Ocala Conservation Center, nestled on the bank of a large lake within the Ocala National Forest. If you’re like me and have priced the cost of kids’ summer camps lately, you’ll be glad to know this camp costs only $295, including all meals.

I don’t have any sons, but with the passion I have for hunting, fishing and wildlife in general, my older daughter, Cheyenne, inherited a taste for the outdoors herself. She even accompanied me deer and turkey hunting last year and was in the blind with me when I took a fine gobbler during her spring break. But she mentioned on a few occasions she wasn’t ready herself to shoot anything. And I’m fine with that.

With her zest for the outdoors, I thought Cheyenne would have a great time and learn a lot at the camp, as well as make some new friends who share her love for wildlife. I had never visited the camp, so my supervisor suggested I go along to see first-hand all of the great things they were doing there under the camp director, Greg Workman.

The camp has weekly sessions in June and July, and Cheyenne and I went down the last week of June 2008. While she did her thing, I planned to get some work done on my laptop computer and also play the role of “guest” counselor.

Camp began on Sunday afternoon, and after we registered, I helped carry her bags to the cabin she would call home for the next five nights. It was quaint and comfortable enough, and I was glad to learn both our cabins were air-conditioned.

There were eight girls in Cheyenne’s cabin, and she was the youngest of the group (and the youngest person in camp that week). But that didn’t seem to matter, because the older girls really “took her in.” It also didn’t hurt that my daughter takes after me in never meeting a stranger.

As soon as I got her settled in, I was told I needed to go back to the “boys’ side” of the camp. The rules don’t allow boys and girls being around each others’ cabins and latrines – only the common areas like the mess hall, which, for cafeteria style, served up some pretty good vittles.

After meeting Cheyenne’s two counselors, I knew I was leaving her in good hands. And I would’ve felt very comfortable leaving “my little girl” there for the week, even if I had not stayed on the property the entire time.

Every day started off with revelry, with the campers and counselors meeting at the flagpole at 7 a.m. This brought back my own fond youthful memories of attending summer camp in North Carolina, but I soon realized being a volunteer counselor was going to require more physical energy than my usual 8-to-5 desk job.

The counselors really keep the campers busy with plenty of outdoor activities from sun up to way after sundown. By the time we counselors ran the kids through the showers and got them all into bed, it was usually 10 p.m. After a couple of long days, I started to really feel my 40-plus years of “experience” and developed an even greater respect for the young men and women who worked so very hard as counselors there.

The camp offers three different programs. The Pioneers program is their entry-level program and the one Cheyenne enrolled in. Cheyenne enjoyed nature hikes, canoeing and freshwater pan-fishing. She also made miscellaneous arts and crafts and participated in a couple of scavenger hunts.

And just like that TV show “Man vs. Wild,” she learned how to construct an emergency, make-shift shelter out of things you find in the woods and how to start a campfire using only a flint rock, piece of steel and “monkey hair” (shavings from the trunk of a palm tree).

The camp’s Safari program, which is for advanced campers ages 13 to 16, delves deeper into these type skills. They venture out on an overnight primitive campout and learn more extensive wilderness survival techniques.

Cheyenne’s group practiced shooting at the camp’s state-of-the-art archery facility and rifle and shotgun range, where they received excellent instruction on how to handle guns safely and learned tips on how to be a better shot.

I was surprised to see Cheyenne shoot a .22 so well, especially since it was her first experience with a firearm. The kids in the Pathfinders program, which is the camp’s most popular curriculum, spend even more time on the ranges, because the campers complete their Hunter Safety certification by week’s end.

Even during the hot Central Florida summer, the temperatures during the day didn’t feel so bad under the shade of the camp’s many majestic live oak trees, which caught the cool breezes coming off the water. But when it did get a little warm, the kids got to jump in a nearby lake. And I was astonished to learn that this was some of the campers’ first experience swimming in a lake and not in a swimming pool.

Camp ended on a Friday, but before everyone packed their bags and said their last goodbyes to their new-found friends, a dance was held the night before. We all were treated to some very entertaining skits put on by the campers and the counselors themselves. Awards also were given out that evening, and I’m proud to say Cheyenne won female camper-of-the-week.

On the drive home, Cheyenne told me how much fun she had had, thanked me for suggesting she attend camp and asked if she could go back again next summer. A few miles down I-75, she changed the subject and asked, “Daddy, can you shoot a turkey with the .22 magnum Grandpa gave me?”

“Yeah, you can legally shoot a turkey with that rifle,” I answered. “Why do you ask?” After pausing for a moment, Cheyenne turned to me and said, “I think I’m ready to shoot a turkey myself next spring.”

And then, all of a sudden, I got this big lump in my throat and couldn’t say a word. Because what this ol’ country boy was thinking was, "Who needs a son when you’ve got a daughter like that?"