By Megan Kehoe • The Bulletin

Beamlak Eugenis grabbed a clump of dead pine needles from the forest floor and carefully packed the material into the side of her shelter.

She looked up at the unfriendly gray sky last week, and then back at the half-completed structure.

“Yesterday wasn’t the funnest day of camp — it was soaking wet,” Beamlak, 5, of Bend, said. “You have to put the sticks together to keep the wind off. If you didn’t, the wind would ruin the tent.”

Students in the Cascade WILDS Camp were busy building shelters out of debris in Shevlin Park on Thursday afternoon. It marked the last day of the weeklong camp session for 6- through 9-year-olds. The WILDS camp, which stands for Wilderness Immersion, Learning, Discovery, and Surviving, is dedicated to getting students out in nature while schooling them on survival basics.

“It’s really raw — it’s a chance for kids to get in touch with nature by doing things our ancestors did,” said lead instructor and program founder Matt Yaeger. “A hundred years ago, everybody knew how to live without electricity and without grocery stores. There’s a disconnect today between nature and society, but this gives them a chance to learn about these things.”

Some 14 students participated in last week’s camp, doing everything from making primitive tools and playing tag in the woods, to going fishing and building waterproof debris shelters. Offered through Oregon State University Extension and Deschutes County 4-H, the nature camp has become increasingly popular in the four years of its existence, with enrollment numbers doubling over the last year, said Yaeger.

On a steep ridge overlooking the park, students worked on their community of pine needle huts, gathering materials, reinforcing the structures with twigs and testing them for sturdiness.

“If ever in a survival situation, one of the first things you do is acquire shelter,” Yaeger said. “If we were in the valley, we’d be using leaves for this. But here, we can use pine needles.”

Students also focused on waterproofing their havens after a downpour the day before exposed some of the shelters’ shortcomings.

Beamlak said building the shelter was her favorite part of the camp, and that the secret to building a good one was finding a sturdy tree to build around.

Wyatt Houston, 9, of Bend, built his shelter on the opposite side of the ridge.

“You need to have an arm’s length of pine needles on top so the rain won’t get in,” said Wyatt. “This probably isn’t waterproofed yet. We need a few more days to build it, but today’s the last day of camp.”

Nearby, students huddled around the dilapidated remnants of what used to be a debris shelter. It had been constructed by students in spring break’s Cascade WILDS Camp, and the shelter’s roof had caved in. But the old hut still provided shelter for some.

“A rabbit came out of there this morning,” said Ewan De­Rosier, 9, of Bend, pointing to where he saw the creature. “I got so close to it — like 3 feet away.” The old shelter also housed a dead chipmunk, which students peered at with equal parts intrigue and disgust.

“It’s got maggots in it!” shouted Ewan.

Yaeger told students to stand back but used the unpleasant discovery as a teaching opportunity. “The maggots will eventually turn it into dirt,” Yaeger said. “Eventually, it’ll go back to being part of the earth.”

Students soon lost interest and went back to building their own shelters.

Yaeger said he was glad the camp was able to take place at Shevlin Park, after it was closed because of the Two Bulls fire in June.

Wyatt was glad too, saying that after being in the camp, he’s confident he could survive out in the woods by building a shelter on his own.

“If I wasn’t here, I’d probably be bored in my dad’s office, watching him type on the computer,” Wyatt said.

— Reporter; 541-383-0354, .