“My expectations were surpassed”

colleen_webster.jpgBefore I even departed for Hog Island, Maine, I had so much to learn. As an English professor come late to the study of natural history, I’ve been playing catch up for three years now, birding with experts, hiking with naturalists. But mostly I’ve been reading. It’s what I do best, so it’s what I did to prepare for my trip six states north.

I read about the geologic events that created the rocky points that jutted out of the water along the state’s southern coast, how their thin soil now supported few trees outside of spruce and evergreens.

I read about the tidal pool homes of various rockweed, arthropods, sea stars, eels, crabs and other shellfish.

I read about Hog Island’s human history of hosting pigs for early settlers’ food supply when it was too cold to harvest fish and lobster and the rocky land prevented successful farming. I read about Mabel Loomis Todd who summered on this 333-acre spot of forest and determined to leave it to a conservation group who would ensure its preservation.

I read about John Wortman, birder and naturalist, whose memorial scholarship had been bestowed on me by the Maryland Ornithological Society to attend this Natural History of the Coast of Maine camp run by Audubon Maine.

Lastly, I read directions and maps, loaded my car, and headed north.

I had no idea how truly unprepared I was to have my expectations surpassed.

The eleven-hour journey gave me much anticipation time. From the information packet I sensed I was going to love this whole week; the What To Bring list indicated nothing electric, no hair dryers, radios or TVs. A whole week free of references to reality shows, rock celebrities and the latest hair-do trends? True nirvana for this anti-pop culture soul.

All the words of great naturalist writers rang through my thoughts. I realized I was not striking rough camp in the wilderness, but I did feel I was going, as Henry David Thoreau wrote, “to learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn.” I was looking forward to expertly led walks, lectures, expeditions and good old camp camaraderie, grown-up style. I had no idea how truly unprepared I was to have my expectations surpassed.

The hilly terrain, light fog and sea air welcomed me to the dip from the mainland to the boat dock. As my bags were loaded onto the transport boat, I received my name tag and peered through a scope at my first life bird of the stay, a Black Guillemot, calmly bobbing among the lobster trap buoys.

Minutes later the first arriving group of campers boarded the Puffin IV only to disembark a few hundred yards away. Sheets and towels all around and we tramped off to various accommodations, mine being the distant Crows’ Nest, an open cabin slowly filling with single women.

After our first of many fresh, homemade dinners, all 43 campers were immersed in our first activity: preparing various rockweeds to be pressed onto watercolor paper, cooking down some to thicken vanilla pudding, adding some to cucumber for seaweed salad.

Over the next few days, we walked a bird trail originally taken by Hog Island’s first ornithology teacher, Roger Tory Peterson; I tried to feel his painterly empathy with the nesting Eastern Kingbird, the flitting Ruby Throated Hummingbird. I imagined the osprey we saw were descendants of those saved by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, her wake-up call to the effects of DDT. We hiked to a cabin where Mabel Loomis Todd worked on the first three editions of poems by her Amherst neighbor, Emily Dickinson. I never stopped seeing, from Harris’ Checkerspot butterflies, to the little cone middens of buzzy red squirrels.

All in all, we spent the week watching birds, or rather looking for them, at 6 each morning, hearing all five of the breeding warblers on the island and seeing many of them: Black Throated Green, Blackburnian, Yellow-Rumped, Northern Parula, and Magnolia. We climbed rocky shores and waded in the bay to find fish, crabs, mussels, dogwhelk and periwinkles. We learned about butterfly mimicy, the migration of monarchs and our human way of tagging and tracking their yearly orange streams north and south. We devoured cookies hot from the oven after standing in fields catching and identifying insects, examining frogs and young eels from the far-off Sargasso Sea.

We learned the significance of each cup of coffee, its relation to the Amazon Rainforest and the wintering grounds of so many of our own summering warblers and other passerines. We boated through Muscongus Bay to visit the now-famous Eastern Egg Rock, an eight-acre island where Atlantic Puffins have been re-introduced to nest by pioneering Steve Kress and his team of steadfast workers.

We watched the sun slipping down over what Maine writer Sarah Orne Jewett called The Country of Pointer Firs.

On our last night, drinking wine and eating lobster, we stood around on the still-wet grass and watched the sun slipping down over what Maine writer Sarah Orne Jewett called The Country of the Pointed Firs in her famous novel. We had become quite a talkative, chummy crew, from the 20-somethings who worked as Park Naturalists, to the Moms taking some time for themselves, to the couples enjoying a learning vacation. One couple was even there as a gift from their children and grandchildren, celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary.

We had come from Florida, Connecticut, Washington state, Ohio, New York, from jobs, from families, from houses with the demands of daily duty. Some of us had never seen a warbler, some could bird by ear, some hated bugs, some willingly placed butterflies on our noses. But no matter our starting place, together, we learned so much from phenomenal instructors who never failed to inspire.

I am not sure what the other 42 took home, but I know what is etched in my bones, in my awareness.

The sound of a Black Throated Green warbler singing away at the foggy stillness.

The serene presence of Sea Bird Sue who spent five summers on Egg Rock monitoring puffins.

The green significance of ferns, lichen and moss.

The relaxed exuberance of Mark who reels off insect orders and swings his butterfly net.

The quiet circle of kingfisher feathers from a hawk’s kill.

The perseverance of Bonnie who has returned to Equador for 18 years to study the Rainforest birds, carrying what Terry Tempest Williams calls “the grief that dares us to love once more.”

The call of a solitary loon amid morning lobster boats.

The patience of Tom answering each of my myriad questions, “yes, Colleen, the oscines can learn songs” with detail and care.

The glaring whiteness of a Roseate Tern as it returns to its nest.

I have learned to see more in this world and to love it better. I learned I have a lot more to learn, but realize I am rewarded already when I remember Maine writer Henry Beston’s words from 80 years ago: ”The world today is sick to its thin blood for lack of elemental things, for fire before the hands, for water welling from the earth, for air, for the dear earth itself underfoot.” I may not have lived alone on the Cape Cod shore for a year, but I went to a cabin on an island and I forged a bridge from the wild to my tame heart.

I am so grateful for this thickening of my blood that I will be a long time leading others to wildness.

Colleen Webster is a college professor from Havre de Grace, Maryland.


Hog Island has almost always been a part of my life. My journey here started not, like most people, when I was ten or eleven, but when I was seven and I came to drop off my oldest brother. I can remember driving down that hill. It was a sunny day, so the ocean sparkled and the island looked green and bright. I have been many places in my life, but it was, and still is, the most beautiful place I have ever seen.


That bit of summer is still clear in my mind. As we crossed the clear blue-green ocean on the boat, I thought about this lovely, but strange, island-camp. It was strange to me because I had no knowledge of biology or ecology, or even what any of that was! All I knew was that my brother thought he was going to have a terrible time at this “science camp.” How wrong he was…

Camp will come to mind every time I hear the ocean, or feel the breeze, or watch the stars shining in the night sky.

The day we picked him up, he didn’t want to leave. He was so happy. He said it had been the best ten days of his life.

A few years passed, and then it was my turn to experience this wonderful camp. I felt so many emotions as I crossed that bay. I was nervous and worried, but in the back of my mind, I think I knew that as long as I was on this beautiful island, everything would be alright.

Those ten days were amazing, as were the next, and the next. They were filled with too many memories and friends and thoughts and laughs to even begin to put here. I remember great conversations on the boat; warm, happy meals; sitting on the glistening, white rocks during recreation time. I discovered and learned about all these new things: bird life, ecology, the forest — even food waste. I suddenly became fascinated with the world around me. Every hour was fun, and every day was magical.

But now my ten-day adventure is once again ending, perhaps for the last time. I know I won’t lose the island, though. I’ll remember every moment here, good and bad. They are too strong in my memory to be forgotten. And camp will come to mind every time I hear the ocean, or feel the breeze, or watch the stars shining in the night sky. I found them here, and I will always take the with me.

But I discovered more than that here … I discovered myself. And as I sit on this wet rock — gazing at the gray islands in the distance, hearing the familiar ocean crashing upon the rocks, and thinking about past years — I can honestly say that this island, and all its beauty, moments and memories, have changed my life forever.

Julie Seifert was winner of the 2003 Essay Contest.

Puffins, up close

Michael Forsyth — a sophomore at McIntosh High School in Peachtree City, Georgia — was winner of the 2003 Photo Contest.


Taking this photo with my Nikon F2 was part of a rare opportunity to see the Atlantic Puffin nesting in its natural habitat. Very few people are allowed onto Eastern Egg Rock in Maine, and I was one of the lucky few, thanks to the Coastal Maine Bird Studies program at the Audubon Camp.

I took this picture from a blind a few feet from the Puffins’ burrows. When we were in the blind, it was an excellent opportunity to see the Puffins up close. Along with the Puffins, we saw common, arctic, and roseate terns nesting on the island. We got to help conduct a feeding survey of the terns with a biologist, and were able to study them from the blinds.

This was my second Coastal Bird Studies program, and it was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

Echoes in winter

7703.gifWinter has settled in along the Maine Coast with temperatures often falling well below zero. As I stand on the mainland dock nestled up against the boathouse in an effort to block the icy wind from lapping my face, I can almost hear the voices that carry over the water during the busy summer season. Today, however, it is quiet and the island seems warm and peaceful snuggled beneath a blanket of snow. A majestic winter wonderland.

During the winter, the activity in the bay slows to a crawl; lobster pots are few and far between and the lobster pound is quiet behind the Cora Cresse, the Puffin IV is nowhere in sight and the terns have all gone south for the winter. Although this place is familiar, the landscape has changed. Living here in Maine, I am witness to the cyclical transformation that the coast makes each year with the passing of the seasons.

The bell rings in my memory signaling the beginning of a new activity as campers emerge from every corner to meet in the courtyard.

Gazing out at the island I imagine for a moment that Janii and the SA crew can be seen bustling about behind the kitchen, busy making the next meal of the day. The bell rings in my memory signaling the beginning of a new activity as campers emerge from every corner to meet in the courtyard. I remember brave campers jumping from the Queen Mary dock into the frigid waters on a hot, sunny August afternoon…

Almost suddenly I become fully aware that I am standing here looking at Hog Island all alone, without another soul in sight. Much like an island solo the still beauty of the coast has captured me yet in the back of my mind I know that there are six months to go until Youth Campers will arrive with eager anticipation of the nine days they will spend on Hog Island; a whole half of a year until the Fish House rings with joyous voices singing “Eider and Osprey take to the wind, rolling blue ocean good to see you again” and we will know in the deepest sense; that yes, it is good to be back at our island camp.

Laura Councell is Assistant Director and Youth Camp Director at Hog Island.

Remembering Rick Ylagan

Rick Ylagan — a dear friend and especially important part of Hog Island — died in his sleep of an apparent heart attack on January 11, 2003. His boundless energy and consistent work were integral to shaping the camp’s current programming and design, and he was influential in the formation of the Friends of Hog Island.


I met Rick in September of 1986 when he arrived in Maine seeking a Masters degree in education from the Audubon Expedition Institute (AEI). He had recently received his teaching certification back in New Jersey, and was eagerly looking forward to exploring the continent aboard this mobile graduate school. The expedition is a learning community comprised of some 20 students and three faculty members who travel via a modified school bus outfitted with backpack racks, cook stoves, kitchen gear, and a library. The educational premise was to study a range of environmental topics in an experiential fashion.

On the expedition, Rick slept out on the ground or in a tent every night and spent the daylight hours outside in all manner of weather. Lessons of the day were not to be found in a traditional classroom and textbook. Rather, they were derived from events surrounding a recent bird sighting, or a controversial statement heard in that day’s meeting at the fishing wharf, or the sound of the rush of wind through towering white pines. Each day focused upon the enhancement of one’s personal journey toward the understanding of the depth of connection we all have in the natural world.

While many struggled with this radical shift in lifestyle and mode of study, it came quite easily to Rick. It bolstered what he already knew and was dedicated to teaching.

The following summer he went to the Brooks Range in Alaska to conduct a nesting survey of birds on the tundra. If the school expedition was an incubation period, Rick surely “hatched” on the Alaskan tundra. He returned with wonderful stories from his Alaska adventures. One, in particular, was a long, solo hike to the Baring Sea. He was filled with excitement over this particular accomplishment. He had determinedly walked to the “roof” of the world and set foot in the cold waters of the Arctic Circle.

He was most alive at Hog Island — on the rocks, sea behind him, gulls flying overhead, explaining to people the awesome powers of the earth. —Wendy Ylagan

He returned to Maine the next school year and completed his masters work at AEI, and while doing so applied to and accepted an instructor position at the Audubon Camp on Hog Island. Then, for 14 consecutive summers (1989–2002), he shared his love of nature by teaching, as one friend put it, “with that great spark of life in his eyes.”

Rick met and married his wife of nine years, Wendy, on Hog Island. Rick loved his family and was devoted to them. He was a supportive husband and a wonderful, hands-on father to their two children, Sidney, 6 and Shane, 3. He loved taking them skiing and skating, playing games with them, or just snuggling with them as they all watched movies together.

Rick was always active. At the Audubon Expedition Institute, it became very apparent very quickly that Rick had an “itch” to be active. The Expedition practiced consensus decision-making, which sometimes meant long hours of sitting and discussing various issues. Sitting around was not his cup of tea. As a faculty member with the Expedition, I remember making an exception for Rick, allowing him to get up from his seated position in the circle and pace along its exterior while he participated in the conversation.

This need for constant motion earned him a special nickname — “The Flea” — his very first year on Hog Island. It turns out that while teaching on Hog, during rare breaks, he would sneak over to the mainland and along with Joe Johanson (the Audubon sanctuary caretaker at that time) would play tennis on a neighbor’s secluded, private tennis court. Joe and Rick were the only two people outside of the immediate family to be given a key to the court. Joe explains how his nickname came about: “To those that might not be familiar with the moniker ‘The Flea,’ it was because of Rick’s superb athletic ability to cover every inch of the court during our many ‘battles.’ He would hop, skip, and run everywhere, and as a man a few decades his senior, I had to try to keep pace while Rick ran all over the place!”


We surely know he was tireless. A typical teaching day on Hog Island would find him conducting morning field walks in geology and map-and-compass navigation, followed by a few afternoon hours of sea-kayaking, and a brief instructional session for the camp weather-forecasting team of the day. After dinner he’d compel you to play volleyball. Then after the evening slide presentation, just when you were thinking of crawling back to your camp bed, he’d pop up with characteristic excitement to announce that the sky was clear and this would be an excellent chance to learn about the night sky. “Go get your flashlights and meet on Astronomy Point in 10 minutes. C’mon do it!” he’d urge. And if the weather wasn’t cooperative for astronomy, he’d be the caller and teach us all to square dance.

Rick was a master at building community among campers. He committed their names to memory and called to them confidently. He pulled them in with that terrific smile, great enthusiasm, and boundless charm.

When kayaking with a group, at some point he’d have the group raft up so that all the vessels were side by side. Then he’d rise up out of his kayak and walk across the bow of each of the boats, balancing and laughing as he walked along. Once he demonstrated this feat, he’d dare other kayakers to try the same! Somehow he managed to keep the activity safe, fun and memorable.

He loved the outdoors, fishing, and working on wood projects. He was very involved in tennis, always trying to improve his game. In 2002, he coached the Bangor High School tennis team to the Maine State championship — and was voted Coach of the Year by his coaching peers and sports writers.

Rick was also the camp photographer. During a session he would somehow manage to take photos of all the participants while they were in action during the week. Often they didn’t know what he was up to. At week’s end, during the session-culminating slide presentation, he’d show a review of the week with campers depicted in the scenes and activities from their week on Hog Island. This came as a surprise to many of the campers, and rarely was there a dry eye in the house.


I personally believe and find solace in thinking that in each of his 39 precious years, certainly the past 16 or so years with Audubon, Rick managed to live three or four lifetimes worth of activities and events filled with gusto. He somehow found time to do it all, not by simply “going through the motions,” but by living each moment fully.

The tragic news of his untimely death is a shock to us all. Friends and colleagues, Audubon friends and past campers from across the country have sent messages and rememberances of Rick:

“Rick was a role model for life itself.”

“His handsome, round face and big, wide smile was like the warmth of the sun itself.”

“He was a dynamo: genuine, big-hearted, joyful.”

“He had so much energy and vitality. He was positive, never complaining, never angry. He loved everybody. He had a knack for filling you up with good feelings.”

“To all he met he showed a friendliness and happiness that stirred the heart. He was a model teacher, exhibiting a passion for learning, patience for teaching, and an excitement for educating.”“He’d call to you by name with such an enthusias-tic and gentle ferocity it was like all the birds singing to you at once.”

A friend from Pennsylvania shares a particularly expressive memory:

“I saw Rick this summer for a too-brief ten minute visit, but as always we immediately connected and it was as if time had not passed since our last visit. It was always like that, for Rick was such a warm, caring person with so much vivacity that one couldn’t help but be drawn to him and feel comfortable. Although my interactions with Rick tended to be limited to summers and occasional emails of pictures of the family and jokes, I have a warehouse of memories. One that I like to share with others around campfires occurred my first time at camp, which I believe was the summer he and Wendy wed, as the orgami cranes remaining from their wedding adorned the dining area. A group of us had gathered on the rocks for a late night astronomy session and one participant asked Rick a question about the northern lights. As Rick began explaining what caused the lights, the sky became bright, and we all saw—many for the first time—the northern lights.”

And from Joe and Mary Johanson, who were especially close to Rick and Wendy: “Our love and prayers are with Wendy, Sidney, and Shane, and with all who loved Rick. Hold a court for us, Rick, and we will continue yet again our very special fun between the baselines.”

As I reflect on these thoughts, I mourn the loss of the physical Rick on this earth, but know that he will live on in our memories. In the course of his 39 years, he touched a myriad of lives through his tireless energy, enthusiasm, and love of sharing his knowledge and skills. His enthusiasm for life and the joyful integrity with which he lived it shall remain an inspiration to me. We each carry a part of Rick with us—may we each honor and cherish that part.

Rest in peace Rick. We love you.