Photos and profile by Caryn B. Davis

Raven Nee was just seven years old the first time she went to the Bushy Hill Nature Center in Ivoryton, CT. Since that time she has participated in nearly every program they offer. “I apply everything I learned at Bushy Hill to all other aspects of my life,” said Raven who is now 18 and studying to become a dancer.

She started in their Young Naturalist Program for Home Schooled Children, which consists of hiking, exploring and team building exercises so both the campers and counselors have ample opportunity to really get to know one another. Each day they set out on foot among the center’s 700 acres of forest, wetlands, caves, an Atlantic white cedar swamp and hidden ponds, to engage in different activities such as wild food gathering, native storytelling, fire making, lost proofing, animal forms and tracking, and geodome construction.

“The camp is a hands-on nature based experience for children. Our goal is to connect them to their natural world,” said Kelly Way, the center’s director. “We hope they will gain a reverence for nature and through that reverence they’ll better understand themselves and the world around them.”

“Another important aspect they teach is respect but they do it without being preachy,” said Raven. “Everyday we sat in a circle and said how we were feeling. It made you realize how your feelings can affect the other people around you. They also asked what we were grateful for. It could the sun, food or the person who brought you to camp. It makes you appreciate what you have.”

When Raven got older she participated in their Summer Camp. Each day began with a series of non-competitive games before the campers split off into smaller groups with their two counselors. As the kids hike to different areas in the woods, they are taught how to identify certain plants, trees, and animals either by sight, smell, touch or taste. The goal is to get them involved in nature by making it fun to enhance their knowledge of themselves and the natural world.

“They might be catching frogs and learning about amphibious life and what lives in a pond, or what makes a pond healthy through getting wet, muddy and froggy,” said Kelly. “Or we might try to get tadpoles, water insects or a baby turtle. We then talk about what we found and how some of the species are indicator species that tell you how clean your water is.” 

After a swim in the spring fed pond and a snack, the day concludes with a closing circle which enables the counselors to check in with the campers to make sure everyone had a good day, and to see what they want to do tomorrow.

“One thing about Bushy Hill is every counselor amazing. They are outgoing, upbeat and happy and can’t wait to share with you what they know. They ask good questions that make you think,” said Raven.

Through the center, Raven became keenly interested tracking and took their week long Tracking Camp that incorporates Tom Brown Junior’s methods. (Brown is America’s most renowned tracker and wilderness survival expert.) She studied animal movements, sign tracking and footprints and through practice, became more aware of her surroundings. She also participated in the mentor program and eventually became a mentor herself to some of the younger children.

“The Mentor Program is designed to be small so we can really connect with the kids and become like a family member, or confidant,” Kelly said.

Building upon the primitive skills she had already learned, Raven was taught how to make glues, dyes and rope from different plants and trees, and how to craft knives from stones.

“I had mentors I looked up to for all they had done in nature and the kind of people they were,” Raven said.

After tracking camp, Raven attended Aboriginal or Abo Camp. Abo Camp teaches four levels of primitive skills with each one building upon the next. During Abo I teenagers learn about tracking and animal forms, knife safety and carving, shelter building, how to light a fire with one match, tree and plant identification, outdoor cooking, stick throwing to simulate hunting techniques, and how to sit quietly and still so they can start to see the patterns in nature. Each session ends with a rite of passage.

“In Abo I it was the blind drum stalk. You are in the woods at night blindfolded and you have to make your way back to the camp by listening to this drum that is beating off in the distance. You have to be grounded and focus. It pushes you to new a place of learning about yourself, nature and the people around you,” said Raven. “When you find the drum it’s one of the most amazing things. You don’t start screaming, ‘Hey I found the drum’. It’s a quiet satisfaction. That’s how all the rites of passage go.”

During Abo II, III and IV the teens learn more tracking, sitting, identification, making fire by friction using a bow drill, food and water gathering, storytelling, how to make stone tools, camouflage, directional awareness, lost proofing which teaches them how to not get lost in the woods, and more. For the rites of passage they build a sweat lodge or inipi, partake in a 24-hour wander with their group, and finally they spend 24-hours alone in the woods on an overnight. They are given a blanket, water bottles and energy bars but are challenged not to use them.

“You go into the woods and sit and think. It’s a meditation. It made me more aware of myself in a way that is difficult to express. It wasn’t a dramatic change but I felt more in tuned with myself, calmer, and more grounded,” Raven said.

“Learning survival skills is really empowering because you don’t always know what to do when you are out in the woods. But Abo Camp teaches you that you can do anything.”

Bushy Hill runs programs year round and during school vacations. While they mainly work with children ages six to teens, they have a program for preschoolers that is an extremely tactical experience. They are encouraged to touch and smell everything around them like leaves, rocks, moss, black birch, flowers and sassafras leaves.

“We do anything we can to stimulate them to get them excited so they don’t think the woods are a scary place they can’t understand,” Kelly said.

With the preschoolers and elementary school groups, nature’s classroom takes place in the woods and in a teepee and wigwam outfitted with hides and stone tools. Dressed in traditional native attire, the staff demonstrates how to make fire from friction using a bow drill or by hand. They also practice archery and teach the children about the Native Americans that lived in these “houses” a long time ago.

“We show how these two shelters differ from each other and the house they live in now. We try to get them to realize there was something before electricity,” Kelly said.

Bushy Hill is on the same property as the Incarnation Center, a fresh air camp established in 1886 for inner city kids and their mothers. It is the oldest co-ed camp in state and shares its land with a science based preschool, conference center, Elderhostel, and a farm belonging to Bushy Hill, that is used as teaching resource. The kids are able to interact with the animals and help feed and care for them.

“We have four donkeys, five goats, two sheep, two peacocks, two peahens, five llamas and one slightly overweight miniature pony,” said Colleen Seymour, farm manager and educator at Bushy Hill.

During the winter months, the staff prepares for their maple syrup program. They tap a series of maple trees and transform the sap into syrup in their sugarhouse. They also use this time of year to try to sign kids up for summer camp through their annual telephone campaign. A large portion of their revenue is derived from the camper’s fees, but as a non-profit organization they also have to fund raise. On May 12th (with a rain date of May 13th) they are hosting an all day festival called Farm Aid. There will be local vendors, artwork, food, farmers and music by the Side Doors, Margie Warner, Auto Pilot, Eric Lichter, the Meadows Brothers, Poor Old Shine, and the Dizzy River Band. Parking is $5.00 on site and while the event is free, donations are welcome. Proceeds will benefit the farm and the Bushy Hill Nature Center.

“The kids that come to Bushy Hill learn they are nature, and that alone empowers a person. They learn that everything matters. If you catch a frog you have to know how to treat that frog because there are consequences if you do it wrong. But it’s not just the frogs it’s everything in nature. Everything is here for a reason.”

Farm Aide will be held at The Bushy Hill Nature Center located at 253 Bushy Hill Rd in Ivoryton, CT. For more information about Bushy Hill log onto