RICHMOND — Our kids went to day camp at Sumner, Stevenson, Berkshire Country Day School, Sports School Day Camp and Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary.
The only one they wanted to go back to year after year was Pleasant Valley, and through the ’70s and ’80s, that place was part of our summers.
What was the magic? No swimming, no boating, no competitive sports. Instead, they had Pond Life, which involved wading into shallow, murky water to find things, slimy and otherwise, getting sneakers and shorts disreputably muddy and requiring a change of clothes.
They hiked the mountain, hot and humid or not, and occasionally had a chance to sleep on the ground overnight. Working with a buddy, they also had chores, rotating through a list of tasks from scrubbing and refilling bird baths to filling feeders, the first order of the day after check-in.
Apparently, it was all magic. They were challenged by the daily “What is it?” competing to identify a display of something from nature, never anything as easy as a buttercup or dandelion.
Born into a family of birdwatchers, they became more expert. They watched beavers fixing their dams. They made new friends, some local and some children and grandchildren “from away” as a Maine writer used to label that state’s nonresident residents. It was before the era of the ubiquitous water bottle, so, they came home hot, tired, thirsty and excited.
Many memories flocked into my head last week when the official ribbon was cut for the eagerly awaited addition to the ancient red barn. Getting a sneak peek inside before the actual event, I first visited the restrooms — spacious, black and white, bright. The old ones were one of the few things our kids constantly complained about. Dark and dank, apparently, at the very least.
They’ll like these, and also love the long, broad observation deck that runs along the back of old and new and gives an aerial view of trees, birds and flowers — plus, in winter, says director Becky Cushing Gop, a peek at Pike’s Pond.
Our youngest stayed so long that she went from camper to CIT to counselor to camp director, reading Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax” to every camp group while they sat in the lunch circle. The author’s favorite of his books, its characters demand attention to the environment, with the Lorax saying, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
And on the 80-degree hikes to the top of Lenox Mountain, she told them to lean against a mossy rock and get a little cool. The older two went on adventure trips with Jack Shea, a Pittsfield biologist and teacher who knew how to get the attention of teenagers. He challenged them on bike trips on the Cape and in Maine and canoe trips in white water and New York state lakes. Tired of paddling, our daughter and her buddy rigged a sail to give their canoe a little boost on endless Raquette Lake.
Pleasant Valley was already venerable when our kids arrived. It was created in 1929 when the Roadside Committee of the Lenox Garden Club bought the Powers and Crockett farms and hired someone to create a sanctuary from scratch, laying out trails (most still in use) and erecting hundreds of bird nest boxes. An estimated 4,000 people visited in 1930. Last year, pandemic-confined visitors numbered at least 15,000.
The beavers were reintroduced in 1932, and in 1947 director Alvah Sanborn started the nature day camp. In 1950, the sanctuary was given to Mass Audubon, and it now covers more than 1,000 acres on the east slope of Lenox Mountain, a center for research projects and education that extends into Berkshire County schools.
A favorite story: Alvah Sanborn encountered a group in a Pleasant Valley field picking mushrooms. He, of course, chided them for picking anything and admitted to having a bad moment when he thought of not telling them that they were harvesting amanitas, one of the deadliest of mushrooms. But, he did. Pleasant Valley has legends, but this isn’t myth. He told me himself.
Generations of Berkshire people have Pleasant Valley stories about birds, bears, beavers and their love for this space, which is why the town and county responded when asked to help. It’s a place that helps us.