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A Week of Sharing Nature on Hog Island

by Hannah Knighton

I'm immediately trying to capture the quaintness of the island. Only a short distance away from mainland, yet still there's something so serene. The air goes in easy on the inhale, crisp and lightly misted with the taste of salt. Educators of all forms and from all over the U.S and beyond have gathered here. From all different walks of life, our paths converged on the rocky dirt path that lead to the dock where we were whisked off to Hog Island for Sharing Nature: An Educator's Week.

Upon arrival, we’re greeted and given time to settle-in. Soon the bay glistens with the dewy glow of the impending 5 o'clock hour. We reconvene for hor-d’oeuvres and not long after are treated to the first farm fresh meal on the island before settling in for evening program. With the lights low and the soft whirr of a hard-working air conditioning unit filling the room, a few of the staff members gather at the front of the room. "Honor the space and those who were here before us," they had said, paying homage to the Wawenock, a tribe of the Abenaki group indigenous to Hog Island. Moving forward in history, guest lecturer Dr. Steve Kress tells the tale of Mabel and Millicent Todd, the mother-daughter pair who adopted and shaped Hog Island into what it is
today, a place to pay respects to and learn about nature. Millicent Todd, who would officially hand over the island to the Audubon society in 1960, wrote of her mother’s legacy and the dedication of Hog Island in her article, Rescuing an Island. Continuing along chronologically, we’re told of the seed that would eventually grow into Project Puffin from the mastermind himself. Kress builds additional eagerness amongst the crowd for the already anticipated trip out
to Eastern Egg Rock to see the puffin colony later this week.

In Rescuing an Island, Millicent Todd said of Hog Island, "the whole camp exhaled an atmosphere of wonder – the beginning of wisdom." That night those words rang true as we poured out of the Fish House, tired from our travels but chattering about all that’s to come from our week on Hog Island. In the midst of July, the sun begins to greet the island at the early hour of 4:30 am. The "hey sweetie" song of the black-capped chickadees echoed steady in the background. The low tide lapped gently at the rocky shore, quickening in pace only as the morning fishermen made their way past the island and out to sea. Those up and ready on our first full day were gathering for the optional morning workshops; photography lessons and bird watching from beginner to
advanced. Our heavy eyes are deceiving as we’re all far from tired, feeling as if we shouldn’t miss a moment.

Throughout the week we would be offered a variety of workshops, and this morning I’d elected to try field sketching. Lying in the hummingbird garden, watching the soft wave of the petals in the breeze, the unsteady wobble of the long stems, we were learning how to map out movement; paying close attention to contours, details, gestures, and ultimately learning what it takes to be a better observer. The remains of the morning dew sticks to my clothes as I hoist myself away from my bee's eye view. The days heat is building, dabbing away the small bits of moisture.

After morning workshops, we get in some bird watching while learning more about coastal Maine on a shakedown cruise around Hog Island in Muscongus Bay. High up in a fir tree, we spot the mottled color of a juvenile bald eagle just as it took off into a long, broad flight, gliding with ease above the towering tree tops. Bobbing in the water nearby we see the black and white, broken tortoise shell mosaic of the loons. Eiders, herring gulls, and cormorants make an
appearance on our cruise too. We watched as the local fisherman cast their wide nets, donning traffic-cone-orange overalls. We even got to partake in their world momentarily, hoisting a lobster trap and marveling at the treasures captured inside.

Back on the island in the afternoon we gathered for a brief lesson on tides and took a short hike to a crescent cove on the island. The afternoon’s low tide revealed rocks thickly coated with brown seagrass, their air-filled bladders no doubt creating a bobbing forest when the tide comes up. We treaded carefully on the slippery seagrass, wading ankle, then knee, and some even waist deep into the bay. Exploring the tide pools we identified green crabs, silversides, rock crabs, mysid shrimp, and periwinkle snails. The oaky scent of wood burning wafted above the smell of the sea as the invasive periwinkle snails were cooked and dipped in butter for us all to enjoy before heading back to the peninsula.

Later on we settle in for the same routine as the night before, dinner and evening program to conclude a jam-packed first full day. Once again we poured out of the fish house, eager for the day we’ve all been waiting for, puffin day. We're wading in the glassy sheen of Muscongus Bay, spotting seals as they pop their heads above water, peering at the birds that speckle the rock formations and small islands throughout the bay. We spot both gray seals and harbor seals, with their large, blubbery masses and upturned, whisker covered snouts. We make our way out of the bay, idling slowly to observe the herring gulls, eiders, and cormorants. The boat breaks into a trot as the bay opens up. We're told that the animal viewing will only get better with the promising possibility of more marine mammals. Just about everyone on the Snow Goose III has binoculars or cameras draped around their necks. A harbor porpoise appears, quickly satisfying the promise made.

We're making our way out to Eastern Egg Rock, home of the puffin project's restored Atlantic Puffin colony. As we approach the rocky shoreline of the small island, we're beginning to hear the call of terns shrieking. It's unclear who’s the first to spot the football sized puffins with their multi-colored bills bobbing in the water, but the excitement only builds from there. Terns circle and dive for food, cameras click; a puffin here or there clumsily takes off, binoculars lift.
Someone points out a Brant, a bird that, to the non-birders, looks simply like a goose (although it's apparently rare to see out on the island). Even more rare and exciting for everyone aboard, we spot the puffin’s cousin, a razorbill. My favorite part? How beautifully they all coexist on this small grassy island with its rocky shoreline. The pitter-patter of wings beating against the wind as the variety of birds continue to take flight and search for meals.

After spending an hour circling the small island in awe, we putter away from the puffin colony and play out the rest of our day on Harbor Island. We set up camp on a beach enclosed by bright blue waters. After lunch some decide to relax just there while others go birding or learn more about the structures and rock formations of the island. Back on Hog Island for the evening, we tune in to the beautiful transition that comes with nightfall. Silence blankets the landscape, even the wind quiets. The gentle flapping of the birds wings and the sound of crickets become dominant over all else. The heat lifts. The critters hiding from predation venture outside their dens. We peer through a telescope to spot Jupiter, we keep our eyes peeled for bats and night insects. We wait until the latest hours of the night to play with the bioluminescence at the surface of the water. It was just as Millicent Todd described it, "sparks on the  surface blending with the reflected universe of stars.”

The next morning, fern covered forests are calling to me, down below the towering spruce and fir trees. The day is cooler and grayer than the rest of the week had been, the perfect weather for hiking the perimeter of the island. Walking through the thickly settled forest along the outer trial of Hog Island, I'm scanned the carpets of bright green moss and whitish-blue green lichen for multi-colored mushrooms popping up from the ground. One of my favorite things about the forest is how life grows from death. Moss creeps its way out of wet, rotting tree stumps. Mushrooms push their way through the thick layers of leaf litter. A variety of Amanita species, Rosy Russulas, and something that resembles cotton candy slime, an actual common name for a species. Fomitopsis towers outwards on the trees.

"Here and there, between two rocky points, a spring of clear water over flows across a little crescent beach,” Millicent Todd said in Rescuing an Island. After mushroom spotting the first leg of the hike, the group stops to enjoy one of these crescent coves. Sitting among the shore with the glaze of salt and the scent of seaweed wafting, we break for snacks and snap photos of wildflowers; irises and morning glories, the later of the two an invasive species. I watch the shore, mesmerized by the way the water fills the space between the rocks, gurgling up and creating soft foam that marks the tide line. I’m fixated by the beauty of this simple moment, the glitter of the small particles of sand redistributing with the drawback of the tide.

A monarch flutters in, causing an uproar among excited entomologists. We decide to continue along, milkweed and fern fields are upon us. Trekking through ferns as tall as we are, we become more familiar with the beauty of this island with each step we take. We come to the clearing where the expanse of tall, flowering milkweed stretches across. Standing in awe of its natural beauty, we watched as the monarchs hovered over the fields of ferns and milkweed, dancing with one another as they twirled from one tall plant to the next.

On our final day we shuffled through a series of workshops, soaking up the last bits of information and mentally harnessing our lessons to bring back home. In just one short week, we immersed ourselves entirely in the natural world, absorbing all it had to offer and exchanging our ranges of knowledge. We found ourselves left in amazement of the amount of learning and growth that could be experienced within a week. Through the lectures of Dr. Steve Kress, Derrick Z. Jackson, Heather Richard, and Brandon Keim we learned of the restored puffin colony on Eastern Egg Rock, the intricacies of animal cognition and sustainable aquaculture, and of the important of writing and photography in communicating messages about nature. When strangers come together with a common interest a comradery forms. Everyone is open and inquisitive, curious and inclusive. We learned not just from the camp staff and our special lecturers, but from each other.

We received the tools we needed to take our interests, passions, and lessons from the natural world and bring them back to our communities. Though we are not unaware of the threats that ecosystems worldwide are facing, we are acutely aware of the importance of awareness and interest, of addressing and educating about the root of environmental issues, and of providing access and opening doors to the outdoors. We left our week on Hog Island inspired, knowing how we as educators, communicators, and role models could start to have an impact. "Only by securing a sustained, genuine interest in nature on the part of children can we hope for a grasp of the need for conserving our natural resources before it’s too late." Millicent Todd’s words ring more true now than ever, and as educators we can clearly see the importance and purpose of capitalizing interest and not just arousing it. Exposure and experience, immersion is what makes us care. With a strong sense of connectedness and enlightenment, we departed from a place that none of us would soon forget, "a center from which [we were able to] radiate new ideas and new enthusiasm for the reservation of the out-of-doors.”

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