Twelve-year-old Ellie Jacoby crouched at the far end of the rocky beach, fully absorbed in her artwork. Atop a circle of dark, sleek stones, she piled wave-beaten rosy granite, then rocks of sandy hues.

Nearby, children roamed through the mist, led by camp organizer Lucy Atkins, a senior at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor. The vacation day camp, “Natural History Explorations,” is the central piece of Atkins’ senior project, a requirement to graduate from COA.

It was a warm Thursday morning, Feb. 23, the fourth day of camp, and all campers had been given an assignment to create art out of natural objects they discovered on Hunter’s Beach, mimicking the work of Andy Goldsworthy, a naturalist, sculptor and photographer.

“He builds stuff from nature — all sorts of stuff,” Ellie said, running her small hands over wet stones rounded by the ocean. “He makes trails of leaves using all different colors and cracks in the ground. So it’s really cool. I only heard about it this morning, but what he did looked really pretty.”

At her home in Cherryfield, Ellie often ventures into the woods surrounding her family’s blueberry barrens to build fairy houses — tiny dwellings made entirely of natural objects.

Wisps of brown hair were plastered to Ellie’s forehead and drizzle clouded her glasses. Though the temperature was in the mid-40s, by the time she topped off her sculpture with a smooth, cream-color rock, she gladly accepted heat packets from Atkins.

“As a 13- or 14-year-old, I would come away from [outdoor] camps just glowing because my camp leaders were so amazing and I’d made some really great friends,” Atkins said. “Good memories of learning cool things in a wonderful place can be life-changing.”

Clad in rubber boots, a green flannel shirt and dark rain gear, Atkins paused to talk with each camper — the group of boys skipping rocks over the thin ice of Hunter’s Brook, and those who, like Ellie, had found a private spot to admire the ocean’s treasures.

The ocean appeared strangely blue-green in contrast to the dreary gray sky. Waves crashed against the shore, shooting sheets of white froth up the beach. Atkins set a boundary for the children so they wouldn’t be swept away on the most exciting day of camp — the museum sleepover.

The day started with a penguin circle. Middle-school campers Molly Brown, Jacob Legudko, Teighan Colson, Robert “Robbie” Denegre, Christopher Butler, Emily Homer, Emerson Jeffery and Ellie huddled together, arms flat to their sides, as Atkins and camp co-leader Annie Cohen, a COA junior, listed off the gear they’d need for a rainy morning outdoors.

The week had been filled with outdoor adventures, but Atkins had to change her plans when vacation week rolled around without so much as an inch of snow on the island. Instead of building quinzees, they were exploring beaches.

“We’ve learned about the strength of ice and lots of animal tracks,” said Robbie, 11, of Bar Harbor.

“We hiked a lot,” said Emily, 10, of Southwest Harbor as she walked the 0.3-mile Hunter’s Beach Trail beside her new friend Ellie. “We went to Eagle Lake and chiseled ice on Northeast Creek.”

Instead of the typical February snow cover, plush, emerald moss coated the ground and clung to trunks. Rosy granite pebbles dusted the trail, adding traction to icy patches.

While some of the children came to camp with a friend or two, others, like Ellie, joined camp alone, hoping to make new friends — and they did. By the end of the week, the campers were engaging in typical camp pranks such as pouring trail mix in each other’s shoes.

Ellie turned 12 on Wednesday and was happy to celebrate her big day at camp.

“Robbie and some of the others, they make whale noises — and in the van, they sang ‘Happy Birthday.’ It was the funniest I’ve ever heard because they made whale noises the whole time,” Ellie said, smiling.

Drizzle turned into a steady rain, and the campers abandoned their natural art projects on the beach to grab a snack and watch the waves.

Molly, a 14-year-old from Bar Harbor, sat on a twisted piece of driftwood, munching on a granola bar. She plans to become a wildlife biologist. The camp was an opportunity to explore places on her home island with skilled instructors.

For the past six summers, Atkins has worked at Morse Hill Outdoor Education Center summer camps in Massachusetts, her home state. A Wilderness First Responder and lifeguard, she believes that children benefit from exploring natural environments, asking questions and digging in the dirt for answers.

Last winter, she helped facilitate outdoor activities at Mount Desert Elementary School such as snowshoeing, ice fishing, building snow shelters and taking nature hikes with students. And this fall, she completed an eight-week internship at Chewonki’s Outdoor Classroom in Wiscasset.

“Days like today, when we are all out there looking at something beautiful and engaged in something like the waves — that’s what I like most about camp,” Atkins said.

The group gathered into a penguin circle once more before leaving the beach. Each had brought their favorite rock to share.

“This rock is amazingly smooth,” said Emerson, 11, of Bar Harbor, holding up a grey, oval stone. “It’s uncanny. It’s a grayish quartz color.”

“I feel like I just took a shower,” said Emily as she wrapped her cold hands in her extra pair of red socks, her blond hair limp and darkened by the rain. The remark was the closest anyone came to complaining all day, and yet, she was smiling as she held up her prized rock.

They lined up at the edge of the shore and tossed their treasures into the ocean before hitting the trail and returning to the bus.

That evening, they built a big fire on “the shrine,” concrete remains of a Catholic seminary that used to stand on the COA campus. Then Atkins and Cohen took the children on a surprise trip to Sand Beach.

“We ran around under the stars,” Atkins said. “And just before we left, we circled up and lay spread out on our backs for a silent moment.”

Back at the George B. Dorr Natural History Museum, the children snuggled into their sleeping bags and slept soundly under the guard of puffins and grey seals.

Atkins will be running a second camp during April vacation. For information, call Atkins at 413-896-5773 or email her at

Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...