Farm assistant Clayton Coleman shows summer camp students garlic while they toured the garden at the Ecology School in Saco on Thursday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer/Associated Press

SACO — Clayton Coleman picked fragrant sprigs from a row of herbs and handed them out to the campers sitting at his feet. They eagerly sniffed the tiny leaves and popped them in their mouths. Could they guess what they were tasting?

“It smells like Papa Gino’s,” said Molly Tappin, 13, from the Moosehead Lake area.

“It smells like pizza Goldfish,” offered Ben Turek, 12, from Buxton.

They were onto something. It was thyme, grown right there on the farm at the Ecology School in Saco.

The school has been running ecology and sustainability programs for kids and adults at Ferry Beach since 1999, but this is the first summer of their overnight camps at a newly built green campus at River Bend Farm. Kids stay in dorms overlooking the forest, eat food grown on the farm and explore nearby trails and ponds.

A group of students and educators explore the forest while walking along a trail in the woods Thursday during Summer Camp at The Ecology School in Saco. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

These campers also are part of a new state initiative to provide outdoor learning experiences for kids who might not otherwise have them because of financial and geographic barriers.


Gov. Janet Mills announced last month that she had launched the Maine Outdoor Learning Initiative, developed by the state education department, which will invest nearly $900,000 in federal funds in 16 programs this summer to teach more than 1,000 middle and high school students about marine and coastal ecology.

At the Ecology School, that means 180 campers will come to one of three weeklong sessions in July for free. The school’s website says its weeklong overnight camp typically costs $950 per child.

Drew Dumsch, the Ecology School’s president and CEO, said that initiative and the Ecology School’s mission were a perfect fit.

“I was definitely a nature kid. I was outside a lot. I was in 4-H. I was in Boy Scouts,” Dumsch said. “But I also had a family, including my grandmother, who would take me birdwatching. Part of why I helped found the Ecology School was to give all the kids who don’t necessarily have a Norma Harrison as a grandmother to have that kind of nature immersion and mentorship.”

A group of students and educators walk along a trail through the fields. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Every morning, the campers at the Ecology School go on a field adventure. They might take a field trip to see tide pools, salt marshes or sand beaches. Those outings were a favorite for 12-year-old Joyce Bambi of Saco.

“We went to the beach to find snails,” Bambi said. “When I go to the beach, I go for fun, but now I know when I go to the beach, I can find sand animals.”


One morning is spent at the school’s farm, which generates many of the campers’ meals. Dumsch said he once had kids try to link their favorite foods to their sources. One kid picked potato chips, but he had no idea that his snack of choice started life in the ground instead of a factory.

Ian Connolly 14, of Cape Elizabeth shovels mulch and compost into a bucket while working in the gardens. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Dumsch came away determined to educate more kids about where their food comes from.

“The most immediate way to teach about ecology is to teach about food,” Dumsch said.

At the school, campers learn as much with their taste buds as with their hands. One day last week, they took a walk through the forest to identify edible plants. (“Eastern hemlock tasted like Christmas, white pine tasted really bad and lemongrass tasted like Sour Patch kids,” Turek said.)

On Thursday, ecology educator Kate Ganley led her group of campers up the path to the farm, where other campers already were pulling weeds and talking to the farmers.

One of those campers greeted the newcomers as he took a bite out of a stalk of Swiss chard.


“You can just grab down and pull it out,” said 12-year-old Alex Johnston of Mechanic Falls.

Magnus Oliver 13, and Avisha Mondak 13, both of Saco, mulch the gardens during summer camp at the Ecology School in Saco on Thursday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The group stopped in front of a giant pile of composted soil and mulch. At their meals, they’d been hearing a lot about food waste and putting scraps into a compost bin.

“That’s the compost we made in the dining hall,” Bambi said, excited.

“The compost ends up here,” Ganley confirmed.

When “Farmer Clayton” approached, Bambi asked him how to make compost. The group took a few moments to talk about what they’d tossed in the compost bin. Bambi peered into the dirt for any traces of her banana peel.

“Have you learned about decomposers this week?” the farmer asked. “What might help break down those foods?”


“Worms!” one kid shouted.

Caleb Do 11, of Saco samples a beet while touring the gardens Thursday during Summer Camp at The Ecology School. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The campers ventured into the fields, where Ganley kept a sharp eye on them from behind purple sunglasses. She is studying environmental science and education at the University of New England. She said the school’s program is much more hands-on and freewheeling than her own childhood camp programs, guided as much by curiosity as curriculum.

“It’s really self-directed,” she said of the Ecology School. “It’s really about letting them teach themselves, or you teach them something and watch them confirm it.”

The campers got on their hands and knees to pull weeds from around the garlic plants. They examined the pump system that irrigates the fields. Coleman, one of the farmers, showed the campers how to gently pick sugar snap peas. (“They’re OK,” Bambi decided after taking a bite. “Still a vegetable,” Coleman conceded. )

Little white butterflies flitted among the rows of vegetables, and Coleman pointed out cilantro and lettuce and peppers.

The surprise hit, however, was the beets.

Coleman cut one up to show the vibrant inside, and the group laughed at the fuchsia on their fingers. Caden Keathley, 12, of Windham, and Caleb Do, 11, of Saco, were soon chomping beets like apples, staining their faces red and pink. They giddily declared themselves “the beet boys.” When it was time to head back to the dining hall, the campers brushed dirt off extras to put in their pockets, a snack for later.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.