The nature lodge folks oversaw the housing of rare and exciting creatures at Roosevelt Scout Camp during the rainy summer of 2006. Garter snakes, a barn owl — someone in my wilderness survival class told me his troop caught a copperhead the year before that had earned a shiny display case at the front of the lodge. I wasn’t sure if I believed him or not. My old man had stories about copperheads in the campsite from back in the day, so there was certainly a poisonous snake sighting precedent.
We figured an exotic American toad would make the cut. It was my first year at summer camp with Troop 33, and toads were in large supply that week. The aggressive rains had brought them all out of hiding, and they lined the dirt paths and camp trails like seagulls on an abandoned boardwalk funnel cake. My friend Kevin was stuffing the little guys hand over fist into his oversized kangaroo-style poncho pouch, but I needed a little more coaxing. Not that I was afraid of toads, of course.
Rain was pouring over the campgrounds as we spread across the meadow. This was our break between the final merit badge class of the day and dinner at the mess hall. Rumor had it that tonight was spicy chicken sandwich night, which the older scouts swore was the best dinner of the week. We wanted to secure our nature lodge exhibition before we ate, so we set about acquiring the toads. I figured I had to contribute at least one toad to the collection. A large one hopped right by my foot, and I scooped him gingerly off the ground. He squirmed in my hand, wet and wriggly.
“Just put it in the bucket,” encouraged my twin brother John, holding the large bucket where most of my troop peers had been dropping the slimy amphibians. The bucket was already housing no less than 30 toads in tight, temporary quarters. They were hopping around at the bottom, their stout legs not quite strong enough to navigate an escape route.
I looked at the slippery fellow as I held my hand out over the toad pail. His massive brown eyes blinked up at me in the rain. Suddenly, a foreign, wet substance began to fill my hand. Horrified, I dropped the toad into the bucket and examined the excrement.
“It peed on me!”
I yelled, aggressively wiping my soiled hand on my rain-soaked poncho.
By the time we presented our bucket to the nature lodge staff we had acquired close to 50 camp toads. They were layered on top of each other at the bottom of the pail like the world’s slimiest sand art display. The ones on top hopped around, bouncing off the bucket walls like preschoolers in a bounce house.
“Oh. More toads.” The staff tried to feign an interest, but we knew our dream of a Troop 33 toad exhibit was dashed. We watched the staff pour our toads back into the field behind the nature lodge. Rejoicing in their release from the bucket, they hopped and danced in the grass. They weren’t so different from us; away from home, splashing around in the rain with their new friends, reveling in their glorious summer freedom.
At the mess hall that night we relayed our amphibian extraction adventures to the rest of the troop. The spicy chicken had lived up to the hype, and sometime between my second and third sandwich a stowaway toad hopped out of Kevin’s poncho and into the exposed bowl of mashed potatoes. None of the adults were happy, but I saw it as our very own live toad exhibition. The nature lodge could keep their snakes; this was the summer of the toad — and it was an immersive sensory experience.
Hailing from a massive Delawarean scouting family, Mark DiStefano spent every summer camping with his friends in Troop 33. He learned wilderness survival at Camp Roosevelt, swimming at Camp Saffran, and kayaking at Camp Rodney.