Staff Spotlight: “Nature Al” Scharnberg - at the heart of the camp, an ongoing wonder and inquiry into nature, human and wild.

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We are pleased to announce that Al Scharnberg is returning to camp in 2024 to run our Nature Program for his 15th summer! He has also worked at other camps before Mondamin for 8 years, and prior to that, taught at Nature’s Classroom and Discovery Place Science Museum. Currently he teaches 7th grade science in Charlotte Mecklenburg City Schools. In short, Al has been an educator all his life and we’re lucky to have him.

Many years ago, Frank D. “Chief” Bell said that inquiry into and reverence for nature should be at the heart of a camp. Another tendency Chief had was to hire interesting people: fascinating characters with amazingly varied skill sets, from Olympic equestrians to classically trained opera singers to story tellers and wood carvers. In the words of Frank Schell, a long time camper, counselor, and Program Director of camp, in a phone conversation with me this year:

“Chief would just reach out for people that were interesting and stimulating for boys to be around. He’d find a job title for them after the fact.”

Al Scharnberg carries on both those traditions wonderfully. He is a man of great intellect and passion for learning about the natural world and he loves - he just loves - to share both with campers. His Nature Lab, on the way to the stables, is a constant hive of activity, with snakes, orchids, amphibians, and even a tarantula that campers love to visit. And it’s not just in the lab: Al believes in getting his campers out into the richly varied Appalachian landscape of both the camp properties and the surrounding Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests on interactive trips, like his night hikes, and “Walden Solo” experiences.

How did you come to camp?

“Because of orchids, because of my addiction. I became obsessed with them at 14. Before that my dad bought me a fish tank when I was 8 which turned me on to living things. Dad would take me outside Philadelphia, and take me on nature hikes. He excited and fueled my wonder of the outdoors. Then I caught orchid fever when I bought a jewel orchid for my lizard habitat and that was it. I attended prep school ar Blair Academy and continued on to Hobart College in NY and adorned their admissions offices with orchids. While at Hobart, I spent a semester abroad in Italy, concluding with a trip to Greece. In Greece, at the site of Delphi, down the street from the Temple of Apollo and the ancient oracle, was a perfectly growing and blooming orchid! In grad school at UNC Charlotte, I went to the greenhouse and saw the orchids and ran into Dr. Larry Mellichamp who said: “Are you interested in working at a summer camp?” And then he steered me up to Mondamin, and here I am! Mellichamp - was brilliant. He gave talks to the orchid society. He would bring up plants to Little Man Lodge and planted them here at camp. In Charlotte, he was the GOD of the native plants. He started the Native Plant Institute. He was on Sailing Staff! All those skills and at a summer camp!”

Why have you stayed? What brings you back year after year?

“I want to do for kids what my Dad did for me. Even my grandmother took me into the woods, we’d make elf houses and stuff, and I’ve never forgotten that. All my life I’ve had mentors like my Dad, Mark Werther of Sentinel Orchids who mentored me when I was a teenager in his greenhouse, and I want to be that person for boys here. I want the campers who come to Nature Lab to become better thinkers, and to teach kids to be conservation minded. So, even if they become bankers, lawyers, doctors, business owners, or real estate developers …. I hope that the experiences here at camp make them Conservation minded. Better thinkers retain a wonder and curiosity about the outdoors. If they remember some of these experiences at camp, it may affect their decision making as adults, and I believe that to be a good thing… I’d love it if I helped a kid with a wandering mind into science. I was one of those kids who is unconventional. I can relate to those kids who may not “fit in.” I understand and love to work with those kids. The beauty of camp is - kids who don’t think of themselves as traditional athletes or academics can excel in this nature exploration and become experts themselves. That gives them confidence. I want them to become people who know the core of the place.”

What are some of the most memorable trips you’ve run as head of the Nature Center?

“I love the Joyce Kilmer trip every year. (Note, this is a stand of some of the largest old growth trees in the nation) There’s something about it that’s almost spiritual. You feel at night that you might almost find faerie circles: you sense there’s a thin line between the natural world and the spiritual. While any camper can go on the Joyce Kilmer trip, the Walden Solo is different, it is a culmination experience. To go on the Walden Solo, campers have to be involved in a curriculum we are building: Nature Enthusiast, Naturalist, Field Naturalists. And they have to be on a three day trip of any kind, so I know that they are ready for extended immersion into the natural world and some discomfort. I also love a hike down from Mt. Mitchell (Mitchell is the highest peak east of the Mississippi at 6700’). I love going down through ecosystems and climate patterns with the kids; it blows their minds.”

When you look back at your time at camp, what accomplishments are you proudest of?

“I think it is that nature is no longer an afterthought. Now it is taken seriously and I think that my way of doing it is a set up of how a good nature lab works. When Green Cove set up their nature lab, they had windows and fans. They incorporated my ideas in how a nature lab should work and what it needs. I love coming back and building on this work, and I’m glad that the administration of this camp appreciates my work and is willing to support it.”

Closing words from Gordo: I reluctantly had to conclude the interview but hope that this gives our camp community a taste of the skill and passion for teaching that Al brings to his position here. I didn’t have time to describe more fully his national reputation as a presenter on cichlids, a West African species of fish he has ten aquariums of, nor his trips with campers to the Bonsai gardens at the NC Arboretum, nor his love of theater and mystery novels… Al will appreciate this quote from the first page of one of his favorite books of a favorite author, British naturalist Gerald Durrell:

“There is a pleasure sure in being mad, that none but madmen know.” Udall, “Ralph Roister Doister”, 1550’s. In this case, mad means wonderfully crazy for the natural world of wonders, and in teaching campers to love learning that world as much as he does. We are blessed to have him.

About Gordon Grant

I came to Mondamin as a 14 year old camper in 1969, and have followed what I learned here in adventure and academic education for 54 years: at Mondamin and Green Cove, Nantahala Outdoor Center, NC Outward Bound, Asheville City Public Schools, and UNC Chapel Hill. I still practice deep play in whitewater, rock climbing, and hiking, and am still working on my kayak roll…

I have worked closely with the Bell family in these years, from the founders of the camps, Chief and Calla Bell, through their son and daughter Frank, Jr. and Nancy Bell, and their grandchildren Andrew, Calla, and David. Each generation has taught me something.

My wife, Susan, is my partner of 40+ years; we have shared outdoor adventures around the world. Susan has headed canoeing at Green Cove. Our daughters, Rachel and Glenna, were Green Cove campers, and our granddaughter, Virginia Rugh, will be at August camp this summer. We intend that our grandson Grant will be at Mondamin in 2028. I am working with David Bell and the Mondamin staff to assure that he, and many other boys, will be having adventures on their personal frontiers at camp for years to come.

Gordon Grant