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New camp: Island adventure

The rain was a gift. It came suddenly from the south, and we didn't have time to get off the island before the water started blowing in sideways, making it impossible to stay dry under our tent without sides.

This didn't faze Guillermo Garcia Rodiles, one of the teachers at Miami's Eco Island Adventure Camp. He calmly adjusted the tent's bamboo pipes, down which the rain was flowing into a barrel. The 25 to 30 kids attending Shake-A-Leg Miami's newest educational venture are learning how to collect water, so the storm was another lesson.

It passed, leaving slightly scared but excited kids, who were now cooled down from the heat. Rodiles, a former member of the band Chicago, returned to jamming with the kids on the musical instruments -- some made out of bamboo, some electric -- he had brought and built. Down the path, other children were racing hermit crabs down the beach, which looks out on Miami's City Hall and Coconut Grove.

Such is a day spent at Eco Island Adventure Camp, a new program 10 years in the making that involved restoring the Dinner Key spoil islands, the small, palm tree-studded archipelago just off Biscayne Bay.

CAMP DETAILS

The Eco Island Adventure Camp runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays until Aug. 7.

Boats leave at 9 a.m. from Shake-A-Leg, 2620 S. Bayshore Dr., Coconut Grove (between Monty's and Fresh Market).

Campers are age 7 to 14. Cost is $250 a week; after-care is available for $5 an hour until 5:30 p.m.

For more, call 305-858-5550 or visit http://www.shakealegmiami.org/.

To find information on other camps, search our summer camps database here.

At 9 a.m. each weekday, a boat ferries the campers, age 7 to 14, over from Shake-A-Leg's docks near Monty's on South Bayshore and picks them up at 3 every afternoon.

In between, the kids and teachers pursue daily adventures of living in nature.

"It's relaxing. You're away from all the noises and alarms," says Chantelle Fortuna, 11, of Coconut Grove.

Once a week, I spend the day on Eco Island, helping the kids keep journals of their experiences. After all, isn't it a fantasy many of us have had, to go live on a tropical cay?

"I want to stay here all day," Miami Mayor Manny Diaz said when he visited the camp recently.

The island is the property of the city of Miami. The camp is the result of a multi-party collaboration: the city, the county, the state, the federal government, Royal Caribbean and Shake-A-Leg all have been involved in restoring the islands, dots of land created decades ago when channels were dredged into Dinner Key.

Nonindigenous species have been pulled out, native plants planted, trails groomed, washed-up boats removed, a wheelchair-accessible dock added.

Children's voices now fill a space that had been derelict and barely used.

The focus of Eco Island is to teach children about their natural surroundings: the distinct ecosystem of Biscayne Bay.

During science class, campers snorkel in the shallow waters, finding sea horses and manatees, which teacher Caterina Morin then explains to them. In art they make cards with sand. In music they carve bamboo into percussion instruments. In water sports they kayak and sail.

"I'm learning a lot about science and animals and how many mangroves and different kinds of plants there are," said Madison Navas Curson, 11, of South Miami.

On a recent day, I snorkeled with the 5- to 8-year-olds. We found puffer fish hiding in the mangrove roots. A spotted eagle ray swam by, but by then Morin was rushing us ashore as the sky darkened and the storm approached.

It can be intense to be out on an island, weathering the hot sun and sudden rains, five days a week. But none of the kids I interviewed wanted to leave the island -- well, "only when it rains," Madison said.

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