JUNCTION CITY – The 10-year-old girl stopped in her tracks, and a look of equal parts fear and disgust hijacked her face the split second she saw the snake in Jack Gerstmann’s hands.
The two-foot water snake was mostly wrapped around one of Gerstmann’s wrists. Fingers behind the serpent’s head held it immobile as the girl slowly came forward, reached out, touched the snake and smiled.
“The first time (Gerstmann) was here, you might not have got him within 50 feet of that snake,” said Tommy Berger, Outdoor Adventure Camp director. “A lot of these kids come a long way in a hurry at this camp.”
He said prior to their arrival at Rock Springs 4-H Center, quite a few of the 42 students that gathered last week for the 26th annual event sponsored by the Kansas Wildlife Federation had never caught a fish, touched a snake, shot a bow, been in a canoe or heard positive things about spiders. All certainly did before they headed home.
Helping them along is a growing crew of counselors who were once wide-eyed students themselves. All volunteer their time.
“I was growing up on a farm but still hadn’t done any outdoorsy things and just fell in love with all of it,” said Victoria Feldkamp, a 19-year-old college student. “It’s just so much fun to help these kids who are just like what I was. It’s worth it all when I see something like the excitement in a kid’s face when a millipede is crawling across their arm.
“Most of them really want to learn and are learning so much. I still learn a lot, even at my age. I want to be doing this a long, long time.”
For Feldkamp and other high school and college-aged counselors the week at Rock Springs, about 10 miles south of Junction City, means a week away from summer jobs. Clay Mrkonic, 33, takes a week of vacation away from his job to be at the camp. That’s fine, he said, because he sees the week as a vacation he’s enjoyed through 12 years as a counselor.
“I do this as much as I can because it helps me stay sane,” said Mrkonic, of Merriam. “I get to spend a week out here, in all of this, and get to be there when a kid catches their first fish or breaks their first target with a shotgun. Seeing how happy they are, and how happy that makes me, tells me I’m doing something right.”
Named after a giant spring that pushes hundreds of gallons of water from the ground per minute, and creates a fertile, clear stream teeming with fish, Rock Springs offers settings where the students can learn about prairie, mature timber, riparian, and aquatic habitats, and the creatures that thrive within them. Though few events went entirely as planned, most went well.
“When you do something for 25 years, you usually don’t have any major problems,” said Berger, who with his wife, Theresa, has directed the camp for 21 years. “Things happen and you just deal with them and go on.”
One major happening was a heavy storm Thursday morning that had the normally clear, placid stream running high, powerful and the color of cocoa. Under normal conditions, Berger and the counselors would have let the kids wade about the stream for the afternoon’s stream ecology class, looking under rocks and swiping small nets through pools to capture a myriad of creatures.
“That’s just way too much water for these kids. It’s way to powerful for them out there and dangerous,” Berger said about the time the mass of about 40 kids descended along the stream bank. “Man, that’s really a shame because it’s always one of their favorite things as they’re out there wading around, discovering things.”
Rather than ditch the chance to teach the kids about stream ecology, Mrkonic and four male teenage counselors grabbed lengthy seines and battled the current and rushing debris as they pulled the nets through eddies and rare slivers of slack water. After a long sweep, the counselors battled back upstream, carrying the folded seines up high.
When ashore, the nets were lowered to the ground, and a treasure chest of larvae, insects, shiny minnows, sunfish and crawdads to the size of small lobsters was opened for the kids that wasted no time investigating the writhing creatures with their eyes and fingers. Among the kids fascinated by the findings was 10-year-old Alexis Sanchez. Chances are she, too, will eventually become a counselor at the camp. It appears to be part of a family tradition.
Her grandfather, Steve Sorensen, helped start the camp years ago. Her mother, Shandra Robb, was a camper when a girl and the 30-year-old woman has been a counselor most years since, though illness kept her away from Rock Springs this spring. But she’s already looking forward to next year and many more to come. Ideally, she’d like to team up with Alexis as the first mother/daughter counseling team when her daughter is too old to be a camper.
“I think that’s a possibility, a definite possibility,” Robb said of Alexis becoming a counselor. “I think she’ll end up doing it in a heartbeat. She was so hyped to get to go to camp I don’t think she’ll want to quit. She’ll probably be like me. I want to be a counselor for as many years as I can.”