Connecting kids with the outdoors

Nature Explorer Camp provides opportunities in rustic setting

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If you go

There will be Nature Explorer Camps held at Camp Wa-Ri-Ki in Washougal, on Saturday, Aug. 6 and Thursday, Aug. 18. The free event is open to all supervised children. It runs from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and includes lunch. Those who have food allergies or a vegetarian preference are encouraged to pack their own lunches.

Attendees should wear comfortable clothing designed for outdoor activities, and appropriate shoes for walking in the forest, and bring a water bottle and Nature Explorer Backpacks, if they have one. These are available for checkout from the Vancouver Community Library, 901 “C” St.; or Marshall Center, 1009 E. McLoughlin Blvd., Vancouver, while supplies last.

To register, call (775) 530-5133, email, or visit

Camp Wa-Ri-Ki

The camp’s grounds were used as a firefighting “honor camp” for inmates of the Larch Mountain Corrections Center after it was built in the 1950s.

In 1973, the grounds were turned over the Kiwanis organization to run a camp serving children with special needs, as well as the elderly. Over the years, it has been transformed into an outdoor school setting, used by local school districts utilized the facilities. Today, the camp is primarily used by church youth groups, schools and other community organizations.

Stepping onto the grounds of Kiwanis Camp Wa-Ri-Ki is a little like going back in time.

From the 1950s rustic dining hall to communal fire pit with benches, the 20-acre camp is reminiscent of an earlier era of carefree summer days before smart phones, tablets and 24/7 communication.

The camp is located 17 miles up Washougal River Road, in an area where cell phone reception is slim to none. Nature surrounds it, from the Washougal River on the far edge of the 20 acre property to towering Douglas fir trees dotted throughout.

For the third year running, the Kiwanis Club has partnered with the Nature Explorer program to offer kids and parents a unique opportunity to experience this camp for a day, free of charge. Transportation from Vancouver and lunch are also included.

“We wanted to make this experience available to everyone so that they all could participate and explore nature,” said Des Costello, program coordinator. “With the advent of technology, there is an ever increasing disconnect between kids and nature. We want them to get involved with preserving and protecting nature, and this is a way to foster that connection. They are the future of our country, and if they are not connected to nature, how will they preserve it?”

The second of three Nature Explorer camps is happening this Saturday. Families and kids will have the opportunity to participate in activities aimed at providing interaction with and education about the outdoors. Participants will spend the day exploring, doing arts and crafts activities, hiking, and viewing a presentation from the Oregon Coast Aquarium.

The Nature Explorer program is part of Vancouver Community Library’s and the Marshall Center’s Summer Adventure program. It is designed to encourage families and children to get outside to explore their local parks, trails and open spaces. It includes a free backpack that families can check out, which has items such as a compass, whistle, magnifying glass, field guides, binoculars, hands-on ideas for kids, maps and trail guides, and a first aid kit.

The Nature Explorer Camp is run entirely by volunteers from the Kiwanis Clubs of Vancouver, and community donations.

“I have heard kids say that it is the best day of their summer,” Costello said. “I hear a lot of, ‘Thank you,’ and everyone seems to be at home in the natural setting.”

She continued, “I know with technology, it becomes increasingly harder to get kids and their parents away from their devices. It’s nice that there is no cell phone signal so it’s not an argument anyone needs to have over putting the phone away. It isn’t even an option.”

Mike Richards is the caretaker at Camp Wa-Ri-Ki. He noted that the big difference between the Nature Explorer Camp and others is the opportunity for parents and children to attend together, and that it is free.

“We had 160 kids and parents at the first one this summer,” Richards said. “What makes this camp unique is that most of the groups who come up are church groups, who rent it to run their particular program. The Nature Explorer program is completely run by volunteers and is geared specifically to get kids in touch with nature. This camp gives them a chance to do that.”

Costello encourages parents who have never experienced Camp Wa-Ri-Ki to take advantage of this opportunity.

“It is something different to do on a summer day, and a chance to connect with other families,” she said. “The camp provides a wonderful setting to enjoy nature.”