Kids slog through the marshes at Everglades National Park. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

Sofia O’Leary, 11, modified her flashlight for nighttime wildlife viewing. Connor Mullins, 10, learned about the ecological damage done by exotic pythons to the Everglades. Sisters Allison, Anna and Marley Blanco sat at an outdoor picnic table, painting picture frames by hand. And Harrison Kershner, 5, gazed upon his first crocodile in the wild.

The youngsters, their parents and several singles were among a group of 90 who spent last Saturday night (Feb. 4) in tents and pop-up campers at the fourth annual “Rainer’s Excellent Camping Adventure” at Flamingo in South Florida’s Everglades National Park, the Miami Herald reported.

The program is the brainchild of Rainer Schael, an environmental consultant who lives in Miami-Dade County and serves on the board of the South Florida National Parks Trust. Schael and wife Noel, a school teacher in Palmetto Bay, provided food, refreshments, and firewood and helped organize nature tours and activities for adults and kids. To attract participants, they posted invitations on Facebook and Twitter, in the Trust newsletter and local newspapers.

Donations from the event benefit Everglades National Park’s new Camping Adventure with My Parents (CAMP) program, which introduces urban and low-income families to the outdoors lifestyle with ranger-guided camping outings. The Schaels’ annual camping outing has raised more than $6,000 over the past four years, which pays for food and equipment for CAMP participants.

“My parents used to come to the ‘Glades all the time and stick me in a backpack,” Rainer Schael said. “Noel and I came here when we started dating. You have so many people who don’t know we live on the edge of three national parks.”

Besides the Everglades, Miami-Dade County borders Biscayne National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve.

Plenty to Do in the ‘Glades

If last weekend’s young campers had to be forced to spend time outdoors, there was no indication of it.

Kids of all ages raced up and down the Flamingo campground on bicycles. About 30 went on a guided walk on the Anhinga Trail where they spotted numerous alligators, cormorants and ospreys. A small group hiked the paved Guy Bradley Trail, named for the nation’s first game warden, leading from the campground to the Flamingo Visitor Center along Florida Bay. Others took canoe and powerboat tours of park waters.

Connor Mullins, on a back-country boat tour with dad Ed, said he learned about trees in the Everglades, and also about pythons.

“Kids back a long time ago would want to have them as a pet, and when they got too big, they’d throw them in the Everglades,” Connor said.

At the Flamingo marina, Harrison Kershner, walking with his dad, Claude, and older brother Claude III, spotted a crocodile lazing on a bank of the Buttonwood Canal. The whole family was thrilled.

“When you’re 5, you’re kind of ready to go with Daddy and sleep outdoors in a campground,” Claude, Sr., 55, said. “I’m looking forward to starting our family tradition with my son. What a treasure Flamingo is.”

Back at camp, the kids painted pictures and participated in a hands-on demonstration of the hydrology of the Everglades conducted by volunteer ranger Ellen Siegel, which involved squeezing out sponges and getting wet.

Then it was time to eat. The Schaels and several adult volunteers prepared burgers and hot dogs on propane grills. Somebody passed out helpings of venison chili.

Kids torched marshmallows over a central campfire and made s’mores with graham crackers and chocolate squares.

Few Brought Cellphones

Amazingly, none of the campers had brought a guitar — or any other kind of musical instrument — for a fireside sing-along. So the seven members of Girl Scout Troop 407 from Miami began an a capella chorus of old-time favorites such as Bingo, He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands and 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.

Even more amazingly, almost no one produced a cell phone — except for brief check-ins with home and to show off wildlife photos taken that day.

As the sky darkened, Sofia O’Leary took out a section of red cellophane and secured it to her flashlight with a rubber band.

“You put it on top of your flashlight at night, so when you look at the animals at night, they can’t see red light so you can look at the animals for a longer time,” she explained.

Then she and several companions dashed off to a nearby field to test their new equipment and chase fireflies.

Anne Palacio, leader of Troop 407, watched them go.

“That’s something you can’t do in Kendall,” she said. “We have to come back here. There’s so much to do. There’s something for everyone.”