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Crocodiles and Campers and snakes // OH MY!

No dorky Hokey Pokey dancing. No mushy pottery-making. No Popsicle stick art.

This is camp-close-to-nature. It's hiking and exploring. It's alligators and pond scum.

When a buzzing insect flies into the camp classroom, the kids suggest capturing it, not swatting it or killing it. It's food for the spider, they say.

Watching spiders and beetles is part of the action at Summer Earth Camp at Clearwater's Moccasin Lake Nature Park. For the next four weeks, kids from 6 to 13 will get the chance to touch a snake or hunt for crayfish in a nearby stream. The camp started in June and will end in mid-August.

X-Press hung out at the camp for two days this month.

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Kids funnel into the classroom about 9 a.m. Before the day gets going, they get to hold the classroom animals.

Cassidy Turbin, 10, handles Rita the rat snake. He lets the 5-foot-long snake slither around his neck and down his arm.

Camp director Doug Scull _ he's the guy who wears T-shirts decorated with insects _ sees trouble brewing as John Burnette, 12, and a frog get near Cassidy and Rita. That's too close for comfort in the animal kingdom, even the small classroom version. Rat snakes eat frogs, Doug tells the boys, so John backs up.

Twenty kids, 14 boys and 6 girls, have signed up for this week's camp.

"You learn things here that you wouldn't learn at home or at any other camp. It's kinda fun learning," says 9-year-old Krystin Jones.

Heading out to the woods, sometimes by way of the park's trails and sometimes off them, is one of the group's favorite adventures. They know where the paths lead, and they know where to hunt for frogs and insects.

As the day's first trek into the wilderness begins, some of the campers brag of their frog-catching expertise.

"It's just like a grasshopper _ you can stick your hand out and pick it up," says David Johnson, 10. "Tree frogs, you need skill. You see it and cup it."

Frogs are everywhere along the trail because of the damp, overcast weather. By the end of the hike, the campers collect more than 50 of them.

This isn't a good thing.

Time for a frog-releasing ceremony.

"Does anybody have a problem collecting so many animals like that?" the camp director asks. "The toads have a problem, I'm sure. If you keep collecting, you're not going to see them."

Within minutes, the more than 50 are free.

Back at the classroom, the campers are treated to a reptile show in which they meet a blue-tongued skink, an iguana and a snapping turtle up close and personal.

When it's time to reach out and touch a reptile, Doug brings out Chester, a 25-pound American crocodile. The 5-year-old croc was raised by humans, so it's tame. But "do not touch Chester's head," Doug warns.

After a brief appearance by a glandless cobra, out comes the dynamic dude of the reptile world: a 160-pound, 15-foot-long python. It took the laps of seven campers to hold the humongous snake.

"It's different. It feels scaly," says Kristyn about the python head on her lap. "I was real curious about what was going to happen next. It was neat."

The day's last event, pond study, brings out the sea hunter in all the campers. Armed with nets and pails, the group leaves the park and heads to a nearby creek. They wade in ankle- to shin-deep water.

Josh Weaver, 13, with the assistance of sisters Jessie Marder, 11, and Jenna Marder, 9, fills a plastic container with their catch: crayfish, shrimp, water beetles and a snail. "We pretty much wiped this place out," Josh says.

Farther down the creek, Jordan Loring, 8, cries out: "I've got a million living things in here!"

The sensory hike is a highlight of X-Press' Day Two of Earth camp. The campers are split into two groups. The 7- and 8-year-olds go first.

Tape is placed over the eye holes of a mask, and the unmasked members of the group help their partners stay clear of spider webs and poisonous caterpillars. The masked kids, stumbling and losing their balance, also depend on their seeing partners to keep them away from tree stumps and low-hanging limbs.

After moving off the trail, the group takes time to just listen.

"Each time you've entered these woods," Doug tells the group, "these sounds have been here. Now I want you to hear them."

Jordan likes the experience. "It's like another world when you just sit here and listen," she says.

Later in the day, campers gather for a hike to the park's dock. It is an exploration from beginning to end. The first creature they encounter is a box turtle. A little farther down, there's a praying mantis on the boardwalk. Below the dock, the kids spot a baby alligator.

The second half of the day includes dry stream discovery.

Katie Schuler, 11, finds raccoon tracks in the dry stream bed but later meets up with a batch of poison ivy. She puts sand on her arms to cool her skin.

You win some. You lose some. The law of the wilderness.

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