Here's to Wonder and Mystery! Audubon's Hog Island Camp Celebrates 75 Years of Education

The Queen Mary Lab on Hog Island. The lab offers a wealth of books, bird-related specimens, and aquariums. Photo by Terri Willingham

To take care of nature, you’ve got to love it. To love it, it helps to immerse yourself in its earthy depths, to learn about its rhythms. For decades, Audubon’s Hog Island Camp has been an ideal setting for loving and learning about the natural world. Established in 1936 as Audubon’s first educational camp, it celebrates its 75th anniversary tomorrow, August 20th. Among its first instructors: the legendary birder Roger Tory Peterson, who inspired one of its current teachers,  renowned avi-expert Kenn Kaufman (a field editor at Audubon magazine.)

The island is 335 acres "of spruce and fir that hug the coast inside [Maine's] Muscongus Bay, a quarter-mile from the mainland, a mere gull’s flap away,” Ted Levin wrote in “A Touch of the Wild” (2002) about an emotional trip he and his two sons took to the locale after his wife passed away. “Hog Island is full of wonder and mystery. Twice each day the sea pulls back from the shore, exposing weed-covered boulders and tidepools rife with crabs and snails and barnacles. At sunrise, 10 or 12 species of warblers flit through the evergreens, harvesting the last caterpillars of summer, while offshore, cormorants and ospreys tow their shadows over the surf. Some mornings, distant islands appear to float in the mist. The frigid water is filled with fish. Its surface is dotted with bright red, yellow, and green lobster buoys, which makes Hog Island pastoral as well as wild.”

The camp experience can even be life-changing. “One of the most memorable field trips we took was to Eastern Egg Rock Island, the southernmost breeding ground in the United States for Atlantic puffins,” Andrea Willingham wrote in “Summer Camp Salute" (2008), at age 17. (In 1973, Steve Kress, director of National Audubon’s Seabird Restoration Program, began his efforts—known as Project Puffin—to restore Atlantic puffins to historic nesting islands in the Gulf of Maine.) “Harbor seals peered inquisitively at us from a distance, and porpoises cruised nearby. Wilson’s storm-petrels soared around the boat, while northern gannets hurled themselves headlong into the waves. A chorus of birds filled the air and the smell of guano wafted into the open-air boat as we arrived at Eastern Egg Rock. Razorbills and Atlantic puffins flew by to perch on the white-spattered rocks and bob in the rough waves…After experiences like these, I knew I would never see the natural world the same way again.” (Willingham subsequently wrote about Hog Island in her college application essay and was accepted to Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, with a scholarship. At the writing of her article in 2008, she planned to major in environmental studies and “go birding as often as possible.”)

There’s another bonus to appreciating the splendors Hog Island offers, too. Participating in its programs forges bonds not only between humans and nature, but between campers. “Walking by the tidepools, I begin to realize that the Hog Island experience has been more than expertly led activities on an enchanting island,” Levin wrote, “People from across the country--the staff and the 41 campers, including grandparents (we had 3), parents, and 19 children--have become a large extended family.”

Whether you’re a teen or an adult, a beginner or a veteran bird enthusiast, Audubon’s Hog Island programs offer something for everyone. For more information, click here.

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