Mixing fun with challenges

Last summer camp for Jim Douglas, the 4-H director for Southeast

Posted: Sunday, July 13, 2003

Four boys lie prone in the dappled shade of a blue tarp strung between trees, air rifles in front of them, as the instructor keeps up a steady line of bantering patter.

It's a rare sunny day and you can smell the big ferns baking in the sun, just like a place that has summer.

As Douglas works with the marksmen, other kids are with counselors painting pots, making tie-dyed T-shirts, learning archery, tying flies for fishing, and horsing around in informal games such as forming human knots of linked arms.

They'll play in the mud on the beach at night, perform in a talent show, and float candles on tiny rafts - "dream boats" - down a creek.

"If your little raft sails out of sight with your candle still going, you get your dream," said Judy Klein, a cook at the camp and parent of past campers.

Welcome to the world of Jim Douglas, the 4-H director for Southeast, as he runs the longstanding four-day 4-H summer camp at the Methodist camp near Eagle River.

"Look at my face," he told the would-be marksmen Wednesday as he tried to figure out their dominant eye, the one they'll use to sight their rifle. "It's ugly, I know, but look at it."

He told them to align the rifle's two sights and overlap the "blade" in the sights on the paper target's bull's-eye. "Even an idiot can shoot," he said.

He explained how to shoot safely, and told them about shooting-sports scholarships at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, whose teams are champions "because Fairbanks is so stinking cold the only thing they want to do is lie on a warm mat indoors," he said.

"Are we ready? Get behind your rifles. I want you flat on the ground," Douglas said. "Pretend you're in love with that ground. If your butt comes off the ground, my foot might accidentally come in contact with it."

Douglas, 54, is the Cooperative Extension Service agent stationed in Juneau for gardening in the northern part of Southeast and 4-H throughout the region. The office, part of UAF, also is staffed with a home economist, a position now vacant, and a secretary.

But Douglas will retire next June 30, and he's not sure the university will replace him, or whether the new home economist will be able to conduct the 4-H camp if he isn't replaced. For now he's sure this is his last camp.

The camp, a Juneau fixture for 19 years, attracts about 65 children, mostly age 9 to 12, and 20 teenage volunteer counselors, plus a few cooks, who are paid a stipend. The kids don't have to be 4-H members to attend. It costs $105.

"It's the only thing I've got going this summer," said Miles Bedford, 10, who has attended two 4-H camps and hit a quarter-size piece of the bull's-eye with all five of his shots Wednesday.

"I really like drama," he said. "I like doing archery. And last year I did fly-tying and that was pretty cool, too."

The secret to good shooting, Miles said, is "what Jim said: 'Just keep it in one spot and you'll hit the target dead on.' "

Counselor C.J. Corso, 19, has helped at camp for five years and was a camper before that for four years.

"We keep them busy," he said as he painted a small flower pot. "There's no down time."

"C.J., like it?" Erik Miller asked, looking up from the crowded picnic table.

"Yeah, it's a beautiful one, green and purple. You going to give that to your mom?"

"Yeah."

A few minutes later Erik, 9, is occupied by squirting dyes from ketchup-style containers into a wet T-shirt bundled inside a web of rubber bands.

"Do you want to do a rainbow, sweetie, or do you want to do your own design," counselor Lia Carpeneti, 19, asked Erik.

"Own design," he replied, and it was. First he squirted red and green dyes in the two-fisted technique, then aimed a steady stream of blue for quite a while, then applied blue and green from each hand.

Blade Aycock, 10, was at his first 4-H camp. It started midday Monday and ended midday Friday. He showed a fishing fly made from a black chicken feather. You'd have to be a fish to be tantalized, but a feather pulsing in the water would look like a wriggling leech.

"This is what I'm really into a lot," Blade said above the sound of squealing and "ow, ow, ow" as a human knot fell apart near him.

The 4-H camp is important, Douglas said, because it's one of the few camps that are co-ed and don't have a religious affiliation. The teenage counselors benefit, as well, although they give up part of their summer earning season to work there.

"Who else would give them the responsibility? I want them to know I trust them. It gives them a chance to be in command and make mistakes where we can recover," Douglas said.

"For me, it's a moving experience for these kids to be so loyal to the little kids. They come here so the little kids have a great experience."

Some of the kids become counselors at 14, said Janeann Twelker, a camp cook and mother of Karl, 19, a counselor.

"It's the first time in their lives they've ever had to put someone else's needs above their own," Janeann Twelker said. "The camp is run for the kids, but I think it's a learning and growing experience for the counselors."

In the lodge, counselor Tyler Birk, 17, was kept busy with a table of 10 children learning to tie fishing flies. Crouching over the table, he adjusted the spools of thread, positioned the chicken feathers and tied knots, over and over, in a display of calm patience. There was never a moment when one kid or another didn't need help. If they didn't ask, he offered anyway.

"If it falls off, you just do it again," Birk told the kids. "This is a little about perseverance."

Katie Poor - "not Rich," she said, and making clear her age is 10 1/2 - had tied a good-looking fly in her first attempt. Now she needed to trim it.

"How do I wrap it off?" she asked Birk.

"Just wrap it around three times. Then you pull it back like that and trim off the excess," he told her.

"I'm so proud of myself," she said, snipping the wrapped feather into a crew-cut caterpillar. "I still need to know how to fly fish. So, it's a start."

She had a rougher start at shooting. Before lunch, Douglas and Katie worked alone at the shooting range. Now the banter was gone, and Douglas patiently walked the girl through each step.

"Squeeze the trigger with your fingertips. Squeeze it. Squeeze it," he said.

A shot pinged.

"You're down too low. You've got to be a little higher," he told Katie.

Another shot, still low. Douglas looked over the rifle to see if it needed adjusting. He crouched beside the recumbent girl to see what she saw when she shot. Another shot, way off target.

"We'll work on this," he told her as they broke for lunch.

After a six-hour hike one day the children still wanted to play Capture the Flag for hours. In a rite of summer, they'll be challenged to swing on a rope across Saturday Creek. Let go too soon and they'll get a dunking. Hold on for the ride back and they'll smack into a tree.

"I'm a firm believer that we bubble-wrap children," Douglas said. "Children are 10 times more capable than we give them credit for."

The kids may get sore on a long hike, but that's part of camp.

"My attitude is - you're a big kid, you can make it," he said. "The kids that struggled the hardest are the proudest."

Eric Fry can be reached at efry@juneauempire.com.



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