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Come to your senses in the middle of Muscongus Bay

Email|Print| Text size + By Melissa Waterman
Globe Correspondent / August 7, 2005

Maine -- When you spend a week at Hog Island Audubon Camp in Muscongus Bay, you must bring the requisite wool and windbreaker to combat the cool air rising from the chilly Atlantic. You also must bring something intangible: your five senses.

''Observation is the key," says Seth Benz, camp director, on the first night of a weeklong course on the natural history of the Maine coast. ''Keep your eyes open and your ears cocked!"

Forty-nine adventurous people have signed up for the class, which promises to introduce us to the botany, biology, and ecology of coastal Maine in just six days. Ten students are teenagers, who have their own instructors and schedule of activities. The 39 adults hail from West Virginia, New York, California, Alaska, Maryland, and Florida, among other places, and bring varying degrees of knowledge about the natural world.

''I'm here to take pictures of flowers," announces Nancy Gill of Wisconsin, whose $1,000 fee for the week has been partially underwritten by her local garden club. Margaret Pearson, a fourth-grade science and math teacher from South Portland, wants to refresh her marine biology before heading back to the classroom in the fall. For Cecilia Rogers, who moved recently from New York to Washington, D.C., to take a position as art director for Conservation International, her motivation is simple: ''I'm looking for some peace and quiet on the coast," she acknowledges with a smile.

The island camp where all have congregated was started in 1936 by the National Audubon Society and is managed now by Maine Audubon. The 330-acre island of spruce, fir, white pine, and exquisite glades of ferns and moss is the legacy of a determined mother and daughter team. Mabel Loomis Todd and her astronomer husband, David Todd, were enjoying their traditional summer sailing trip through Muscongus Bay in 1908 when Mabel, alarmed by the lumbering on Hog Island, decided to buy it. Several years later, she had amassed nearly all of the little lots on the island, and she and her husband built a small cabin in which they spent many subsequent summers with their daughter, Millicent.

When her mother died in 1932, Millicent Todd Bingham inherited the island, including all but one outstanding lot owned by a local couple. In the depths of the Depression, the local couple told Millicent they intended to cut and sell the trees on their property. She asked them to give her time to find a way to purchase their lot.

For months, Bingham scurried about trying to locate someone to buy the land and conserve it. Finally, in 1935, she met in New York with John H. Baker, director of the National Audubon Society. After hearing Bingham explain her desire to conserve the island and use it for nature study, Baker reportedly leaped from his seat and announced, ''This is just what we've been looking for!" The society wanted an appropriate place to launch its first Nature Study Camp for Teachers and Adult Students; a deal was struck and the camp on Hog Island opened the next year.

The island was transferred by the National Audubon Society to Maine Audubon in 2000, part of the national organization's decision to close all but one of its nature camps in the United States.

Courses at Hog Island Audubon Camp are fun whether you are a Rachel Carson wannabe (Carson, an early environmentalist and author of ''Silent Spring," kept a summer home on the same bay and visited the island many times in the late 1950s) or simply a curious observer of nature. The class and dormitory buildings dotting the northern tip of the island date to the inception of the camp and, while rustic, are clean, comfortable, and have electricity. No outhouses at this camp.

The Bridge, a rambling white farmhouse, serves as the communal dining hall and staff office building. Overlooking the island's lone dock is The Queen Mary, a grey-shingled building that houses a modest laboratory with a flowing seawater tank and myriad stuffed birds as well as student bedrooms. It was a ship's chandlery during the 1800s, when dozens of Maine-built and -captained wooden merchant vessels set sail from Muscongus Bay. Evening lectures are held in the buoy-bedecked Fish House, which has a magnificent fieldstone fireplace.

Each morning, the Natural History of the Maine Coast course begins with a voluntary bird watch. Drawn into the spruce woods at 6 a.m. by the enthusiasm of ornithologist Tom Leckey, groggy-eyed birders doused in mosquito repellent are rewarded by sightings of Blackburnian warblers and parulas, two of the dozens of species that migrate each spring from South America.

Even for those of us inclined to listen to bird calls from the sanctuary of our beds, a quick glance skyward at a dead birch tree on our way to 7:30 breakfast brings a reward. A pair of flickers has made a nest in a hole in the tree; the trill of high-pitched squeaks indicates juvenile flickers in residence. Sure enough, after a few minutes, we see an adult flicker, identified by its distinct red and black markings, head back to the tree to be greeted by a clamoring chorus of three dark heads peeking out of the hole. Meal deposited, the adult flits away and the siblings retreat back inside the tree.

Mealtimes for Homo sapiens at Hog Island are a convivial time to review what's been seen, heard, smelled, or felt during the day. Longtime cook Janii Laberge and his young kitchen crew prepare healthy meals for meat eaters and vegetarians. On July 4, students are surprised with a holiday luncheon feast, complete with hamburgers on the grill and pounds of succulent watermelon. On the last evening, Laberge prepares a Maine lobster bake; the crustaceans are caught by island staff in the camp's 10 lobster traps.

Bit by bit, everyone starts to slow down. As Benz said on the first night, ''This isn't school; you don't have to do anything if you don't want to." Still, learning more about the flora and fauna of the island seems to bring out the child in many an adult. One afternoon is spent exploring the pools that dot the island at low tide. A man from Alaska and a doctor from Pennsylvania draw a fine-meshed seine through the 59-degree water; a clump of people crouch to pick through and identify the various seaweeds and animals captured in the net. Another 1 1/2-hour class on insects ends with grinning adults swirling nets in the air to catch dragonflies and damselflies.

Each evening, guest lecturers visit the island to give an overview of their work. Gathered in the Fish House, students listen to marine biologist Diane Cowan explain the migratory patterns of Homarus americanus, the American lobster. Cowan uses identifying tags to track the crustacean in her work with the Lobster Conservancy, a nonprofit research and education organization based in nearby Friendship. Another evening, Steven Kress, director of the National Audubon Society's Seabird Restoration Program, regales students with the history of puffin restoration on Eastern Egg Rock, a treeless island at the mouth of Muscongus Bay. Bonnie Bochan, a Hog Island instructor, talks about her 20 years spent inventorying and protecting songbirds in Ecuador. Whatever the topic, we sleepy students perk up in response to the lecturers' enthusiasm.

On the final Saturday, 49 well-tanned campers enjoy their last communal breakfast at The Bridge. Bags are taken down to the dock to load onto the boat for a quick trip to the mainland. Some are eager to pick up their cellphones, to connect again to life off island. Others linger over breakfast, exchanging e-mail addresses and promising to send photos. Michelle Rueneger, a naturalist from Clearwater, Fla., acknowledges that she is looking forward to seeing her husband again.

As she heads down the dock, she waves her hands at the ocean, the rocks, the clustering trees:''It's so beautiful and there's so much out here!"

Contact Melissa Waterman, a freelance writer in Maine, at waterman@gwi.net.

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