Piles of dead leaves and pine needles dotted the ground of Poland Spring Campground when Tamra Wight returned home from teaching middle school on Monday, April 25. Her son, Ben, had been hard at work, raking campsites in preparation for the busy season ahead. Her husband, David, was working on opening the campground’s water lines. And later that day, Tamra would be in the office, listening to voicemails and jotting down reservations.
The Wights have owned the 132-site campground in Poland, Maine, for the past 18 years, and they’ve been managing it longer than that. By now, they’re used to the hustle and bustle each spring. There’s a long list of chores to complete, and they work together to whittle it down.
“I raised both of my kids here,” Tamra Wight said. “It’s a really great lifestyle.”
The hard work and excitement of opening up a campground in the spring is one of the many themes in Tamra Wight’s newest book, “Mystery of the Missing Fox.” Published by Islandport Press, the 200-page book was officially released on Tuesday, April 28, and is the third installation of the Cooper and Packrat mystery series for middle-school aged kids.
The book series follow the outdoor adventures of a boy named Cooper Wilder, whose family owns and runs a campground in Maine. Cooper is a young naturalist, constantly monitoring wildlife in the woods and waters around his home, aspiring to someday become a Maine Game Warden.
“Everybody said, ‘Write what you know,’ and this is what I know,” Wight said. “With the campground, you have a changing cast of characters. You’ve got the family, but you know people come and go, interesting people.”
“And there’s lots of wildlife here to draw from inspiration from,” she added.
Wight describes the Cooper and Packrat books as “eco-mysteries” or “eco-adventures,” combining ecological themes and the action-packed mystery genre. With a full cast of unique and likable characters, Wight weaves lessons of wildlife and wilderness ethics into a page-turning storyline that is filled with adventure, excitement and humor. At the not-entirely-fictional Wilder Family Campground on Pine Lake, Cooper and his friends solve mysteries, interact with quirky campground guests, strive to protect local wildlife and deal with complex issues involving family and friendships.
“I like to throw a lot of family in there. We’re a very tight-knit family,” Wight said. “And we cater to families [here at the campground]. We’ve met a lot of families.”
Since debuting with “Mystery on Pine Lake” in 2013, the Cooper and Packrat series has received great reviews from Kirkus Reviews, and has been applauded by readers on online bookselling sites such as Amazon.com.
“If you’d have told me 10 years ago that this would have all come together, I wouldn’t have believed you,” she said. “It just kind of morphed into it, and it works. And it’s a busy lifestyle but I really do enjoy it all.”
In the shade of tall white pines, Wight strolled past empty campsites to the shore of Lower Range Pond. At the water’s edge, she steadied her camera on a monopod and focused its 500mm lens on an eagle’s nest located on a nearby island. Constructed atop a big white pine tree, the nest was a giant bowl of sticks, and standing smack dab in the middle of it was an adult bald eagle, its white head shining in the afternoon sun.
As Wight scanned the nest with her camera, looking for the gray, fuzzy heads of newly hatched eaglets, a loon called out from the water nearby.
“I think that I’m a full-fledged nature geek now, at age 50,” Wight said, “so much so that if I go for a walk, my husband pretty much knows that I won’t come back for an hour or more. I’ll find something and just want to take pictures or watch it, observe. It’s a way for me to de-stress too. Life is very busy, and taking those walks is very calming.”
Her walks also help her gather information and ideas for her books. Each book in the Cooper and Packrat series focuses on a different species of wildlife. The first book, “Mystery on Pine Lake,” was inspired by a pair of loons that Wight watches every year on Lower Range Pond. And the second book, “Mystery of the Eagle’s Nest,” is based on Wight’s observations of local eagles.
“There’s always I think a part of me that hopes the kids will bring out of the story, not a lesson, but maybe a ‘what if’ of their own,” Wight said. “What if they go outside and explore nature and find their own inspiration?”
Wight originally planned for the third book in the series to feature bears, but her plans changed after she stumbled upon a fox den in the woods near the campground. Instantly taken with the adorable fox kits playing near the den, Wight set out a game camera to learn more about fox behavior without spooking the family away from the den.
“I found them quite by accident, and the opening chapter is a little bit of a twist on my having found them,” she said. “They’re just so darn cute, those foxes.”
“Mystery of the Missing Fox” is Wight’s most complex book yet, with multiple storylines, a large cast of characters and the most action-packed scene she has written to date. Also, Wight introduces one of the most fascinating and mysterious characters yet — a pet raven brought to the camp by an equally mysterious camper.
“It has a lot of layers,” Wight said of the new book.
Though busy with teaching and opening up the campground for summer, Wight is already hard at work on the fourth book in the series, which will feature bears. And since there aren’t any bears around Poland Spring Campground that Wight knows of, she has been conducting research at the nearby Maine Wildlife Park in Gray, which serves as a permanent home for wildlife that cannot survive in the wilderness. At the park, Wight has purchased a special photographer’s pass to observe two captive black bears up close.
Wight also does a great deal of her research while teaching full time at Bruce M. Whittier Middle School in Poland, home to some of her biggest fans.
“Just being in the lunchroom at lunch time, there’s a lot of research I can do right there on middle schoolers,” she said laughing, “what they like and what they don’t like, and how they talk — those kinds of things.”
Wight also finds fans at Poland Spring Campground, where she sells her campground-themed series to people of all ages from the campground’s small store and office.
“I have campers who read the books,” Wight said, “but then I have readers who show up to check in at the campground.”
The Cooper and Packrat series, illustrated by Carl DiRocco, is available where children’s books are sold, as well as at www.islandportpress.com in hardcover for $16.95 each. Readers can stay up to date about Tamra Wight’s books and her life at Poland Spring Campground on her website www.tamrawight.com, with more wildlife-specific content on her “Words and Wildlife” blog at www.tamrawight.com/words-wildlife-blog/.