BRYANT POND — Michael Daiute had no idea what to expect from the email his father wanted to show him. The email, sent from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, was nothing short of mind-blowing for the 12-year-old from Braintree, Massachusetts.

Michael had been chosen to attend the inaugural Camp North Woods, staffed by the TV stars of the Animal Planet’s “North Woods Law.” He has watched the show religiously since it first aired in March 2012.

“(My father) didn’t tell me he was entering me in the lottery for the camp because he didn’t want me to be sad if I didn’t get chosen,” he said. “When I saw the email, I cried.”

Michael was one of 96 kids, ranging from ages 8 to 12, who were selected in June via a random lottery for spots in Camp North Woods. Seventy percent of the children, selected from hundreds of lottery entrants, are from Maine.

On Wednesday, 48 boys arrived at the University of Maine’s 4-H Camp and Learning Center at Bryant Pond (located 10 miles southeast of Bethel in Oxford County) to take part in the five-day camp, sponsored by the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. The campers come from as far away as Illinois, Mississippi and Arizona. In two weeks, 48 girls chosen in the same lottery will attend Camp North Woods for five days.

They will learn to paddle a canoe, handle a firearm, fish for brook trout and use a bow and arrow. They also will be taught the reasons why Maine’s fish, wildlife and natural areas need to be protected for future generations, and how they can help.

And the lead counselors are four game wardens – called “the original guardians of the great outdoors” by Animal Planet – from the TV reality series. More than 1.2 million viewers tune in per episode, according to Animal Planet publicist Jared Albert, and the show is broadcast worldwide. Game Warden Jonathan Parker, who is a regular on the series, said he has a childhood friend who watches it in Japan.

Game Warden Pete Herring, another regular on the show, is stunned by the renown that he and other members of the Warden Service have received. He and his wife were vacationing in Bermuda this winter when he mentioned to a stranger they were from Maine.

“‘You’re from Maine; that’s where that show with the wardens is,'” Herring recalled the man saying. “Then he said, ‘Wait a minute, you’re Warden Herring.'”

Herring said at first he was resistant to do a reality show based on his law enforcement work, but he said the show’s ability to teach people about the wardens’ charge to protect Maine’s natural resources surpassed all expectations.

“Especially today with all the negative around law enforcement departments, we do not suffer that,” he said.

For the boys attending Camp North Woods, the wardens are more than TV stars. They are real-life heroes.

“I watch the show. And I don’t watch that much TV. I was pretty happy when I saw I was on Team Herring,” said Tyler Young, 10, of Arizona.

“Some of these game wardens are idolized on the show,” said Ron Fournier, the Bryant Pond conservation education director. “Here they are mentors, and the campers are learning right alongside these adults who happen to be stars of a show. That adds a cool factor.”

For Michael Daiute, Camp North Woods has amounted to the best experience of his young life.

“I would have to say I like them because they’re stopping bad people,” he said when asked why he admires the Maine wardens.

“When I saw Parker and Herring here I asked for their photos right away. I know this will go down in history as being the first Camp North Woods. So I’m part of history. And there are tons of nice people here. The wardens are some of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. They’re really good guys, and they’re fun, too.”

Sessions at the camp will be filmed by the Animal Planet production crew for an episode that will air in the upcoming season, Fournier said.

Next year, the camp will accommodate 300 children, moving toward its goal of 1,000 attendees in years to come. A 4-H conservation camp typically costs $625 a week, but Fournier said sponsorship scholarships allowed campers to attend Camp North for $400.

For the game wardens acting as camp counselors, Camp North Woods brings home the very purpose of their job. On Thursday, as four camp groups moved between activities on Christopher Lake and the thick woods nearby, Parker said many of the boys were learning outdoor skills for the first time.

The game wardens are not paid to work at the camp, Parker said, just as they’re not paid for appearing on the TV show. He said having the chance to teach these interested youths to fish, paddle a canoe or trap a wild animal ethically goes beyond what he ever hoped to achieve as a law-enforcement officer.

He also was filled with skepticism when the reality show was proposed. Today he said the warden service unequivocally embraces the opportunity to be the world famous ambassadors of Maine’s woods and waters.

“It’s put Maine on the map,” Parker said. “These kids are excited to be here, but we’re excited, too. The night before they came was like Christmas Eve. I feel I have the best job in the state. This is a unique opportunity to share what we do and why we do it with kids.”

 


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