The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff members who manage the Southeast Louisiana Refuges complex are fine stewards of some of the most pristine public property in the state.

And during the week of July 14, they may have sparked interest in local youths who one day may follow in their footsteps.

The USFWS hosted a Refuge Ranger day camp at Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge that week for children ages 8 to 10. A capacity class of 22 youngsters took part and discovered the joys of canoeing, animal identification and much more during the five-day event, which was supported by the Friends of Southeast Louisiana Refuges.

It was the first time in nearly a decade that the USFWS was able to hold the camp, and the rangers on hand to work with the young crowd said it was a pleasure to have the camp return.

“It’s a short summer, and those are kind of the times that we rest as well, because we do school programs all year just like teachers do,” USFWS Supervisory Park Ranger David Stoughton said. “It’s a big staff commitment, but we’re happy to do it. A camp like this gives us a unique opportunity to reach kids again and again, five days in a row. And that allows us to share some of the ideas of shared stewardship, of outdoors stewardship, of the value of public lands in the area. It’s nice to see ... their development throughout the week.”

The children who took part in the Refuge Ranger camp came from a variety of backgrounds. Some were well-versed in the ways of the outdoors, while others were completely new to the scene.

Watching them board canoes in Bayou Lacombe on July 15 told the tale, as some hopped right in and others fretted about the possibility of alligators in the bayou or the canoe sinking.

Regardless, all of the children sported wide smiles after making a few tours around a small island with an adult volunteer on board to show the way.

Trey Higgins, 8, was one of the kids who knew his way around the water. He had a half-dozen or so fishing flies attached to the bill of his Dale Earnhardt Jr. ball cap, and said he just returned from Alaska, where he went whitewater rafting with his mom.

“The canoeing is my favorite part so far,” he said. “I just like it.”

Julia Songy, 10, said she too was fond of the canoeing, and added that she spends plenty of time outdoors with her family.

“I like the outdoors,” she said. “It’s peaceful, and it’s relaxing. There aren’t a bunch of kids screaming.”

Julia also realizes the importance of maintaining natural spaces such as Big Branch Marsh NWR.

“It’s important to conserve this, because you want to have it around forever, for our grandkids, so they can see it too,” she said.

Stoughton said he first knew he might spend his adult life as a ranger when he was young—practically the same age as Trey, Julia, and the other 20 children at the Refuge Ranger camp.

“When I was a kid, I think I attended some summer camps like this as well,” Stoughton said. “You get a good foundation on how to be an outdoorsman at a young age. Today, there are so many different media forms. We spend a lot more time inside. So connecting kids with nature is really the heart of this camp. That’s why we’re here, just to build up that sense of stewardship.

“These public lands are theirs. The habitat is designed for the animals, but it just is not going to be maintained without the next generation picking up the torch.”

For more information on Big Branch Marsh NWR and the entire Southeast Louisiana Refuges complex, go to www.fws.gov/southeastlouisiana or call (985) 882-2000. The headquarters for the complex is at 61389 La. 434 in Lacombe, just north of U.S. 190.

Andrew Canulette covers recreation and leisure activities for the St. Tammany Advocate. To reach him, email acanulette@charter.net.