Student Guest Column: A Life Changing Journey

In a little-known corner of Central Pennsylvania called Lock Haven lies the Sieg Conference Center. It was in this location that I experienced one of the most educational, exciting, and enlightening weeks of my life. I, along with roughly 25 other teens between the ages of 13 and 17, found myself dropped completely alone in a group of people from around the state. What had brought us all together? It was our mutual love of Pennsylvania’s state fish, the brook trout.

Upon arrival to the Wildlife Leadership Academy Brookies Camp, which we had all applied to months earlier, we were segmented into groups of five students, one returning team leader who had been to the camp before, and one adult team leader. Then the camp’s coordinator, Katie Cassidy, gave her introduction. The topics she covered ranged from the guest speakers we would meet over the next few days, to the trips to local streams and hatcheries, to the strict schedule we would be following each day.

To most of us, it seemed more like a boot camp than the fun fishing camp which we had signed up for. I looked around nervously, wondering if my choice to come here had been a mistake. At the conclusion of her speech, Katie gave us time to say goodbye to our parents, and then to socialize with our teams. After expressing my concerns about the camp to my dad, he told me to stick with it, and to interact with all these people who shared my key interests. Talking to him gave me confidence, and, as he pulled away in his truck, I walked back into the conference room with a change of heart.

I saw a boy about my age wearing a camo Hoyt t-shirt, and went to talk to him. Hoyt was a hunting company, which made high-quality bows and arrows. I introduced myself, and we started talking about deer hunting, a favorite hobby in both our lives. Upon hearing our conversation, five or six other students came over and gave their input. It was an icebreaker, for me, as well as for the others.

Our conversations spiraled from hunting to fishing, to school, and everything in between. I quickly began to realize that I was not alone here, but rather surrounded by other people who were just like me-people who loved the outdoors, hunting, fishing, hiking and photography. Once all the parents had gone and the majority of us students had become acquainted, Katie asked us to all take our seats with our respective teams.

She then handed out the first activity on the seemingly never-ending list, which we had all been given: a pre-test. It was centered on the brook trout, fittingly of course, as this segment of the Wildlife Leadership Academy camp was supposed to be focused on this animal. Upon completion, we went over the test as a group, and simultaneously realized just how little we knew about this fish we were all so interested in. Katie, after bringing us to this realization, told us that now it was time for the rigorous work to begin.

On the first afternoon of the camp, we were bombarded with guest speakers such as Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission’s Coja Yamashita, Penn State’s retired fly fishing teacher and fly fishing club mentor Greg Hoover, and Pennsylvania Outdoor News photographer Mark Nale.

Our notebooks quickly began filling as we tried to absorb every word these experts said. After they had finished speaking, our guests came together to quiz the students with “Brook Trout Trivia,” which occurred at the end of each day. Then it was time for the “Dailies,” which was a collection of photos of the day compiled by our resident photographer, observer, and bed-checker, Wayne Sierer. After the Dailies, it was time for showers and then off to bed around 11 p.m. each night.

We awoke promptly at 6 a.m. the next morning, as we would all week, to get dressed and meet outside for team cadence. We stood in a line and recited our cadence while marching in place. This prompted us to learn organizational skills as well as how to wake up on time, a skill many of us teens were lacking. The next four days flew by, each one full of interesting activities, a few of which I will highlight.

On the second day of the camp, we visited the local hatchery at Tylersville, as well as the US Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Fisheries Center, which was located just down the road. We saw Atlantic Sturgeon more than seven feet long, and paddlefish whose mouths stretched wider than their bodies was long.

The next day we were paid a visit by members of the Lloyd Wilson and Spring Creek branches of Trout Unlimited, who taught us how to tie flies and the basics of fly fishing. The fourth day of the camp held my personal favorite segment, during which Pennsylvania Sea Grant’s Sarah Whitney came and shared a presentation about Aquatic invasive species such as hydrilla weed and didymo. There was also a hypothetical town hall meeting, during which each team was given different sides to cover and argue. As the fifth and final morning dawned, we voted on the leadership award and awaited the arrival of our parents.

As they slowly funneled in, we sat them in the back of the room, and once they had all come in, we sat back down in our teams for the closing ceremonies. Awards were given out for tri-fold presentations that we had created, for the journals we had all written in, and for the sketches we had drawn over the course of the week.

Then it was time for the student voted leadership award. We all held our breath as Katie made the announcement. I couldn’t believe my ears when my name was called. I stood up in disbelief and walked to the front of the hall with a huge smile on my face. It had not even occurred to me that the social interactions and friendships I’d gained in that week would prove enough for people to vote for me for the leadership award.

My prize was a limited edition Ned Smith print valued at over $500. As the ceremony came to a close, I went to each and every person at the camp and shook their hands. The Pennsylvania Wildlife Leadership Academy brought me together with a group of people who, in a mere five days became some of my closest friends. It helped me gain valuable insight into the world of Wildlife and Fisheries Science—my intended college major—and also gave me useful connections with many of the guest speakers who visited the camp. While I realize that a camp like this is quite selective, I encourage young people to try it if they are truly interested in the outdoors, nature, or any specific animal species.

This year, the WLA will be offering five camps, or field schools, in different locations in PA. The brook trout-themed Brookies camp will still take place at Sieg, but for those less interested in the aquatic side of Pennsylvania, there will also be camps centered on Whitetail Deer (Bucktails Camp), Black Bear (Ursids Camp), and Ruffed Grouse (Drummers Camp). Additionally, this year will be the first year in which a new camp centered around Bass will be offered.

This camp was a truly eye-opening experience for me. It showed me a gateway into where I want my future to go and provided me insight on how to make that happen. I gained friendships, professional guidance, and valuable connections in the world of Wildlife and fisheries science, and I’m not alone.

Every person at the Brookies camp got the same exposure to these experiences, and, while I can’t speak for those people who visited the other camps, I know for a fact that none of us Brookies would have rather stayed home for that week. So, if you or someone you know has a passion for the outdoors, I strongly encourage you to go check out WLA, it can change your life!

* Tom Miles is a senior at Unionville High School.

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