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Kindle: Ruskin’s Camp Bayou offers great escape

By Lois Kindle
Published: April 11, 2013
Dolly Cummings, Camp Bayou Outdoor Learning Center manager, explains the proper technique for netting river "critters," one of several hands-on activities at the Spring Open House.

Camp Bayou is an ideal place for families to go and enjoy the outdoors and all things natural. The problem is, few people know about it.In fact, lots of folks living in South Shore will tell you theyíve never heard of the place Ė either that or they donít know where it is. Thatís really a shame.I was out there a few weeks ago for the learning centerís spring open house. I planned to stay for a half hour, and then rush off to do my normal Saturday errands. But within minutes of arriving I found my spirits lifted by the peaceful surroundings and ended up staying for three hours. Thereís something about Camp Bayou that pulls you into another place and time.Henry David Thoreau once wrote, ďI have a room all to myself; it is nature.ĒThatís how I feel when Iím walking among Camp Bayouís magnificent oaks or along the ambling Little Manatee River. Itís an incredibly beautiful place, a 160-acre nature preserve filled with a variety of natural Florida habitats and all kinds of birds, butterflies, mammals and reptiles, including a large gopher tortoise population.Back in the day, Camp Bayou was home to a privately owned RV Park. In the mid 1990s Hillsborough County purchased the land through the Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program, and then partnered with the Ruskin Community Development Foundation to open and operate an environmental center on site.As early as 1999, the Ruskin foundation sponsored nature programs at Camp Bayou. Over time, buildings were added to expand its offerings to include a nature center and classroom; visitorís center; covered pavilion; butterfly and native plant gardens; canoe launch; historic fishing cabins; and Indian Village and fossil museum Ė all of which make up the outdoor learning center today.Thereís no overnight camping. Itís more of a place to spend quality time alone or with family and friends while visiting the center, picnicking, hiking or canoeing. Itís also a place for church, businesses and civic groups to hold day retreats or meetings.Camp Bayou hosts a number of annual events, including spring and fall open houses, Back to School Ė Back to Nature and Save the Frogs Day/Great American Cleanup, which is coming up April 27. It also hosts a Family Naturalist Program the first Saturday of every month.With few exceptions, most of what Camp Bayou offers is free. Itís financially supported through local grants, donations, memberships and a handful of community volunteers.Some day when youíre feeling the pressures of this world or simply looking for something different to do, get in the car and head south to Ruskin. Camp Bayou is three miles south of State Road 674 at the end of 24th Street Southeast. It could be the best road trip youíve taken in a long time.Camp Bayou is open Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. For more information, visit or call (813) 645-8545.