Through a twig archway in a pocket of the forest, a group of children played in the dirt and on some old tree stumps. In the background of their play space, known fondly as secret spot number two, stood several stick structures, remnants from the past year. Last summer, the older campers at Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary’s Fern and Feather Day Camp built the forts for their traditional Thursday night sleep-out. This year they are territory for the younger kids to explore.
Other vestiges of past adventures at the Fern and Feather Day Camp date back much further. This summer marks the camp’s 50th year.
On Monday morning last week, Discoverers and Pathfinders arrived at the sanctuary, ready to begin their week of nature adventures. After the first 10 minutes, even the shy kids were playing in the leaves.
“We’re going to the salt marsh!” said a camp counselor as she gathered the kids in the center of secret spot number two. “We’re going to the salt marsh!” one camper echoed. “What’s a salt marsh?” another asked quietly.
Fern and Feather Day Camp aims to spark interest in and respect for nature among children by actively immersing them in the natural world. Campers come from all over the Island and around the globe.
Founded by the late Anne Hale, the natural history camp for children began in 1964 as part of the Martha’s Vineyard Natural History Society. The society was offered the use of Felix Neck, 200 acres of woodlands, fields, marshes and beaches that stretched down to Sengekontacket Pond in Edgartown. Today the area is the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, a Mass Audubon property.
And the children’s camp endures, running weeklong sessions throughout the summer.
“One of the roles of camp is to teach kids that everything in nature has a purpose,” said Josey Kirkland, education coordinator and camp director. “And we have to take care of it.”
On that day, campers spent time learning about marine mammals and different kinds of habitats. Discoverers (ages four to five) visited the swan nest at the Sengekontacket Pond, saw where turtles live and took a trip to the osprey pole.
“With everything changing with technology, it’s so cool to have kids here,” said Claire Chatinover, a counselor in her third summer at the camp. “They can literally just play for hours in these [secret] spots and just make up their own world.”
Suzan Bellincampi, sanctuary director, said one of her favorite parts of Fern and Feather is the loyalty among its alumni. She has heard many stories about parents who attended the camp as a child and who now send their children there. One family drives to the Island from Walla Walla, Wash., so that the children can have the same experiences their father did years ago.
“It’s an honor honestly to be able to have that tradition,” said Ms. Bellincampi. “I love this energy and the people having fun, enjoying themselves, learning, and it’s important to me to know that parents want to give their kids that experience.
“Holding a snake or touching a turtle, you don’t forget that,” she added. “So, whether you had the experience 40 years ago or last week, it’s something that lasts a lifetime and that kind of shapes who you are. Whether you become a scientist or a carpenter, a love of nature really guides you through your life.”
To celebrate the 50th year of the camp, Felix Neck has scheduled a special series of events that began in May. On August 3, there will be a Fern and Feather at 50 benefit concert featuring Island musicians. The year of celebration will culminate in an alumni gathering in October, where friends of the camp will gather to reminisce about their experiences at Fern and Feather. Gus Ben David, the first director of Felix Neck who led the sanctuary for decades, will be in attendance.
The sanctuary wants to raise $50,000 for its scholarship fund this year, in honor of the 50th anniversary. Traditionally, Felix Neck gives $10,000 in scholarships each year to Island families. The typical ratio of campers who live on-Island to campers who live off-Island is about three to two.
“It’s special because the locals are mixing with the summer kids who are mixing with the visitors and really creating lifelong friendships and connections to nature and the Island community,” Ms. Bellincampi said.