Nature Mary has been running our nature program for over two decades. She is an expert on the local environment and excellent educator. She is a favorite among many campers who can't get enough of learning about the Adirondacks. Hang around Mary for a few minutes and you're bound to learn something. Learn more about the natural world our campers explore as described by Nature Mary.
You go by Nature Mary at camp. Is that a nickname you picked up here? How did you get the nickname?
Yes, Nature Mary is a Woodcraft nickname. One summer there were several Mary's in camp. For ease of communication it became my camp name. For some reason the name stuck. On occasion, in a non-camp setting, like a gas station or restaurant, a camp alumni will call out to me using "Nature Mary.” I will instantly light up, because that person and I will immediately begin sharing great camp memories. So it is a nickname I enjoy.
How long have you been running the nature program here at Woodcraft?
A long time. Every summer, I have to ask myself am I too old for camp? I decide that without the enthusiasm of the campers I would feel even older. This is my 21st summer as Nature Mary. I did take two summers off in the middle to complete my graduate work, which was important.
Outside of Woodcraft you teach in the sciences. How much does your program at Woodcraft overlap with what you teach during the school year?
I intentionally bring in some traditional classroom topics, hoping the exposure will boost the campers’ confidence and background knowledge when they cover similar material in school. When they have looked at a real starry night, or have caught their own plankton, hopefully what they study in school will have more meaning. But we also do a lot of great things that aren't covered in typical science classes, because they have the best science classroom of all; what they are discovering before them in the natural world. Fungi and animal tracks don’t usually make the school curriculum.
As a keen observer of the natural environment, what is the most fascinating thing you’ve witnessed in the Adirondacks?
On the eve of an early October snowstorm, the coyotes were really howling. I was standing down by the river, where we launch for the Moose River canoe trip. I was listening for the new ice to break up and make that tinkling sound. The sun had set about a hour before. I think it was a wolf that came running across the bridge, up the hill towards me. I instinctively yelled and clanked my hiking poles. The animal darted into the woods. What followed sounded like a dogfight. The next day John saw a coyote with a broken leg. Everyone in the neighborhood reported there animals were acting strange during that window of time. Anne's horses wouldn't exit the barn. Her dogs weren't barking, just frozen in place. Another neighbors dog wouldn't go outside, despite having been inside all day. Rod Phinney an Adirondack native said he has never heard anything like the fighting sound. To this day, because it was dark and because it would be uncommon, I am not sure if it was a wolf or a very large coyote. But it makes a great story.
How about the most rare animal or plant you’ve been able to spot?
I think the bladderworts in our bog are fascinating. They’re insectivorous plants that suck up aquatic insects with bladder like sacs that hang off their roots below the bog in the water. On occasion I have seen a black-backed woodpecker with some campers – that is a pretty rare bird.
You teach campers how to read meteorological instruments like barometers, wind speed sensors, and rain gauges. Are there any colloquial methods for predicting the weather that you’ve found reliable?
My favorite is a "mackerel sky," tiny sets of cirrocumulus clouds that look like fish scales that indicate a front is approaching in the next 24 hours.
What is the most common question you get from campers regarding the local environment?
Is there any poison ivy here? (There isn’t)
If you weren’t in the Adirondacks, what natural environment would you most like to explore and study?
I do love the beach. Most of my vacations include some kind of water, fresh or salt. I still think that when I "grow up" I want to be a marine biologist.
What is your favorite time(s) of year to view the wildlife around Woodcraft?
Winter is pretty exciting time. Tracking in the snow allows for some interesting animal adventures to be interpreted.
In a typical walk around Lake Kan-Ac-To, what might a camper new to the Adirondacks experience for the first time?
The beauty of the lake, the grandeur of the white pines, the calls of the white throated sparrow, and most likely a toad or two.
Are there any unique nature moments from this summer that stand out?
Well don't get me started. Braden, one of our youngest campers, scooping up a baby snapping turtle thinking he was catching a frog. The Auroros discovering the magic of moonlight and how to navigate constellations. The Hadarondahs, the youngest girls in their pink shorts and pigtails, standing in knee-deep muck catching frogs. The Wenonahs, the middle age girls, with amazing curiousity, diving right into dissecting birds and snakes. Trail campers, the oldest boys – nearly men – chasing moths with butterfly nets. You will have to ask them why they requested that activity. IVer's, always brave, deftly catching sunfish and giant water bugs with sieves. Ranger Posters not always delicately, deciding if they like the taste of wintergreen. The OLTDs sometimes remembering enough from previous summers to teach the other campers.
We can search and look all over camp for opportunities to experience extraordinary moments, rare events. But many of the best moments just come from being present in the moment and taking in the beauty that surrounds us. Appreciating the blue of the sky, the reflection on the water, the variety of greens and reds in the vegetation. A hummingbird may happen by our view. Or we may see the first of the orchids blooming. If we are looking we may find a snake eating a toad. We can't really control what we will experience. We just have to be open to the wonder of it all and appreciate what the day brings.
Last question: Have you ever seen a moose in the Moose River?
No, not yet. Most of my moose sightings have been in the boundary waters of Minnesota. But I have seen one in Raquette Lake. I have also seen moose tracks about two miles from camp and one mile from Moose River. Visiting Helldiver pond in Moose River Plains is on my to do list for after camp. That’s a popular spot to see them.