By Tracy Correa
MONTANA DE ORO STATE PARK – A group of students from Independence Elementary School in Bakersfield gathered under a tree last week on an unseasonably warm day on the Central Coast to listen to naturalist Dean Thompson explain how gravitational forces affect ocean tides.
This could have been boring, but Thompson is funny. Holding a poster board with colored paper cutouts of the earth and ocean, he asks: “What’s this?” as he points out a large blue section. “Water!” the children shout. Looking puzzled, Thompson responds: “It’s just a piece of paper. If it was water it would be falling off.” The students, a group of boisterous girls, laugh loudly.
He manages an entertaining yet educational lesson that serves as the pre-cursor to an afternoon hike along the San Luis Obispo County shoreline in Montana de Oro State Park — the home of Camp KEEP. KEEP stands for Kern Environmental Education Program and home base for the camp is a series of non-cabin-like modular buildings in a wooded area just outside the town of Los Osos. Inside the buildings are stacks of bunk beds where students spend very little time since most of the activity is outdoors. There is also a learning area with animals and reptiles that students can hold.
Each year, thousands of fifth- and sixth-grade students from Kern County and surrounding areas spend a week at the camp, owned and operated by Kern County Superintendent of Schools, to learn about the environment. (A second Camp KEEP site is located in Cambria.) The camp first opened in 1968, meaning at least two generations of students from the Central Valley have spent time learning on the Central Coast.
This year, PG&E gave $5,000 to Camp KEEP’s Ocean site to fund a native plant garden at the camp’s entrance. About 20 PG&E employees from Kern and Los Padres Divisions also volunteered on Friday (Oct. 19), installing plants that will eventually attract native birds and butterflies that the children at the camp will study.
It’s a project that PG&E employees like Maggie Werner, of Bakersfield, feel good about. “I remember coming here as a kid,” she said. “It still looks the same.”
Like Werner did years ago, a new group of Kern County students was now learning about the ocean and surrounding mountains.
Thompson led a group of 14 girls and a couple of parent chaperones on a hike along the coastline. Along the way, they marveled at a tent spider and its three-dimensional web. They paused to identify native plants. But the real fun was when Thompson led them onto the beach. The plan to see the tide pools was thwarted by the high tide, but Thompson was determined to make the day fun. He tells the students to comb the beach and find as many interesting items as they can. “You have five minutes,” he said as the students branched out in all directions.
They return with an assortment that includes shells, seaweed and unusually-shaped rocks. Thompson draws a large circle in the sand and proclaims it “the curiosity circle” and instructs them to place what they found in the circle. He helps them separate the items into living and non-living and discuss the objects, including a sandal that leads into a talk about litter on beaches.
A camp to remember
On the walk back up the hill a few of the girls are singing. Hannah Anglin, whose shoes got wet when the tide rolled in faster than she could run from it, said she enjoyed her time at Camp KEEP. “I liked the creek the best,” she said referring to an earlier hike. Roxy Mehia chimed in: “Everything was fun!”
An hour after campers boarded buses to return home on Friday, PG&E employees showed up to plant the garden. The garden represents a coordinated effort between the utility, Rotary Clubs from three counties and landscapers who lent their expertise. The plants were grown by students from Los Osos Middle School.
James T. Haas, service power planning engineer in San Luis Obispo, is credited with getting PG&E involved with Camp KEEP. Haas, who has won two Mielke Awards from PG&E for his community service, noticed the camp could use some help when he and his team were out installing equipment designed to increase energy capacity at the camp’s new kitchen.
Elizabeth Roberts, program supervisor at Camp KEEP, is grateful for the new garden that will one day have a water feature and attract wildlife.
“This was an empty space. Now, this is the entry that will welcome everyone when they arrive,” she said.
Email Tracy Correa at firstname.lastname@example.org.