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Welcome back with ANEW look at Florida!

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image Flowers at Camp Bayou Nature Preserve. Mitch Traphagen Photo

Enjoy a beautiful, less traveled part of Florida this weekend.

By MITCH TRAPHAGEN

RUSKIN — Florida is many things to many people. For 18 million of us, it is a place to live, to work and, occasionally, to play. For another 82 million people, it is a place to visit for shopping, Disney World, hitting the beach or just to escape a cold winter for a week or two. But Florida is far more than beaches, strip malls and theme parks. While the waterfront is stunning, some of the most beautiful parts of the Sunshine State are not only off the beaches, they are also off the beaten path.

The Camp Bayou Outdoor Learning Center is one such place. It began, appropriately enough, as an abandoned RV park and was purchased by Hillsborough County in 1995 under the Environmental Land Acquisition and Protection Program (ELAPP). Today it is a model of the beauty and serenity of Florida that you won’t necessarily find in a travel brochure. It is also a shining example of what communities working together can achieve. Both the Ruskin Community Development Foundation and the Community Foundation of Greater Sun City Center have invested, along with the county, into making Camp Bayou one of the increasingly rare and beautiful places that is a showcase of Florida’s incredible diversity. Nature has quickly reclaimed her prize and there is nothing to suggest an RV park ever existed there.

This weekend, Camp Bayou will give everyone the opportunity to experience a taste of the real Florida with a program known as A Natural Education Weekend (ANEW). It begins on Friday with sessions that include everything from how to explore the outdoors responsibly, to enjoying the outdoors with children, to lessons on setting up a camp given by the Ruskin Boy Scout troop. The latter event will not only provide the opportunity to gain knowledge from the very experienced scouts but will also provide a rare chance to get camping tips from a kid’s perspective.

Friday evening will end with a camp-style dinner of hamburgers and hotdogs, along with s ‘mores around a campfire and a talk entitled, “Frogs, Water and More.”

Beginning at 9 a.m. on Saturday, numerous family activities are scheduled that range from a fishing clinic, to how to make a fossil sifter, to making a cane-fishing pole. In addition, Peggy Morgan from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection will give a talk, with the great title of “Macro-invertebrate Mania,” about things to look for in a healthy river.

The general sessions on Saturday include a nature photography clinic and trail walk, and a discussion on Florida’s early residents from 500 years ago with Mac Miller. Also on Saturday is a talk by George Kish of the USGS on the connection between plants and the climate and on ways that everyone can help scientists learn more. Additionally, Camp Bayou director Dolly Cummings will provide a peek inside the Florida Master Naturalist Program, a curriculum of interest to everyone from citizen scientists and community volunteers to working biologists.

Between all of the sessions will be opportunities for geocaching, letterboxing (an outdoor activity that combines orienteering, art and puzzle solving) and even fly casting practice. Also, a visit to the onsite Paleo Preserve Fossil Museum will be well worth your time.

Saturday evening events begin at 4 p.m. in the pavilion with announcement of the winners of the photo contest and a poster session with students from the environmental studies class at Hillsborough Community College. There will also be live music before dinner (for the sake of full disclosure, I will perform that music. In other words, come and be ready to sing along — I’ll need your help!).

Following a barbecue chicken dinner, the weekend’s keynote speaker, Rob Heath, will give a talk (most appropriately) on getting off the beaten path. Afterwards the evening will conclude with make-your-own ice cream sundaes.

On Sunday, ANEW continues with the choice of four field trips to Emerson Point Preserve, a green campus tour of HCC-SouthShore, a guided canoe tour at Camp Bayou, or a fossil trip to the Peace River with the staff of the Paleo Preserve Museum (you can use the fossil sifter you learned how to make on Saturday!). All of the field trips require pre-registration and a small additional fee.

Registration for ANEW is available online and admission is ala carte, meaning you can choose to register for the entire weekend or for specific days and activities. Pre-registration is strongly encouraged to help program organizers ensure that everyone gets what they want out of the event.

As is to be expected this time of year, the weather forecast is beautiful for the weekend, so it will be a great time to get out to learn about and to enjoy one of the more beautiful, less traveled sides of Florida. Particularly for families and those returning to their winter homes from the already chilly north, ANEW offers an opportunity to see Florida itself anew — and to see that enjoying the Sunshine State doesn’t have to be a crowded or expensive experience. Paradise is literally in our backyards in what was once an RV park that many dedicated volunteers and nature herself have reclaimed.

Registration is available online at www.anew2011.eventbrite.com. For more information visit www.campbayou.org, www.anaturaleducation.blogspot.com or leave a message for a return call at 813-641-8545.

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