Gratitude Celebration 32: “It’s a Zoo!”

It’s ironic that for the first time I’ve been writing my Gratitude Essays on the porch of a cabin in Maine, a camp adventure group with ten canoes is landing at the ramp nearby. How fitting that this is the day I’m writing about the woman who introduced me to my life’s favorite workplace – Woodland Altars Outdoor Education Center.

I had already met Maureen “Mo” Sullivan, a short, cheerful Nature lover with red hair to match her Irish surname, at Camp Blue Heron a couple of summers before. At camp, she was the long-time Dorm Counselor of the girls. She rarely went on the long canoe trips that I led because her job was to keep life flowing smoothly at the base camp in the backwoods of Ontario. And she did! With Nell, the Director, Belinda the Science Counselor, and the male Dorm Counselors Mike and Alec, she brought a consistent atmosphere of fun and exploration to the campers. Sometimes the outings to the swamp and the garnet quarry and the ice cream shop sounded like so much fun, I wanted to stay at camp so I could go too!


I saved my outing time with Mo for our occasionally coinciding days off. Then, we would dress in our ‘swamp clothes’ and drive to her favorite marsh to wade into the muck and discover the wonders of the plants and animals that lived there. When we were satisfied with what we had seen, we’d emerge from the water, covered up to our thighs in brown muck, laughing at how it stuck to our hairy legs. Living with Mo was the first summer I had brashly let my leg hair grow!

I did get to participate in Mo’s programs for the first week of each camp session when all the campers were getting ready for their canoe trips.  One of her favorites was a wide game/scavenger hunt that she custom-made for each group. She called it “It’s a Zoo!” because as the thirty campers were running all over the 12-acre camp trying to follow her directions, the place was a ZOO! Kids would be hitting the volleyball, carrying canoes, loading buckets of water, searching for toads, and chasing after me to “Get a hair from the head of the Capital of Sascatchewan.”

She also helped organize the all-night Perseid Meteor Shower watch when the whole camp slept out under the stars and counted meteors. And it was Mo who helped keep it “secret” from the other campers that my older girls were sneaking out for their skinny dipping escapade. The two summers I worked with Mo at Camp Blue Heron were loads of fun!

I kept in touch with her during the following year, and enjoyed meeting her friends who worked with her at an intriguing place called Woodland Altars when she invited me and one of my Thomas More friends to go to a  cross-country skiing training. “Why not?” I thought. It would be something different to experience in Ohio, and a good way to meet her much-admired colleagues Nan, Karla, and Larry. We had a blast!

To my surprise, a few weeks later, Mo wrote and said that one of their staff was leaving in May, just when the outdoor education program was full.  She thought maybe I could fill that position and suggested that I apply. I did, feeling immediately connected with everyone since I had met the other staff. I had also met the director, Jim, and head naturalist, Judy, briefly when they were doing a special outpost camp at Camp Blue Heron the first summer I had worked there!  Although I had been enjoying my internship at the Cincinnati Nature Center, there was no question about taking the job at Woodland Altars in late April. I spent the next eight weeks reveling in the hills of southern Ohio, learning the ways of a Teacher-Naturalist, and thriving in the community of the staff.

I shared the mobile home that was parked near the entrance of Woodland Altars with Mo. She was a great housemate, just as she had been at Camp Blue Heron! I was amused, and touched with her compassion and patience, when the game warden brought in three orphaned squirrels. Mo volunteered right away to nurse them, with the hopes of releasing them back into the wild. I was incredulous that she actually nursed them for several weeks with an eye dropper and diluted peanut butter. I did pitch in when the one surviving squirrel could eat nuts. I only got bitten once handing cracked nut meats through the mesh of its cage. Everyone celebrated when, during the last week of the Outdoor Education season, Mo opened the cage and the squirrel ventured out into the woods.

Oh yes! One more thing that endeared me to Mo forever! One of the silly customs that we had at Woodland Altars was to take turns riding down the driveway after the departing school buses on a tiny banana-seat bike. This had absolutely no purpose except to create a lasting impression of unimpeded joy with the campers who had just spent four days with us learning in the outdoors.

For the whole season, Mo had said, “On the last day, I’ll ride down the hill and off the dock!” Would she do it? To our delight and amazement, she did. Mo Sullivan rode that bike right off the end of the dock into the lake! My heroine of the light heart!


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