Building adventures

Camp nurtures innovation, nature appreciation

Eleanor Dohrenwend, 9, left, who lives in Marquette and Japan, and Siri Fiocchi, 9, of Marquette, work on a cart during this week's Adventure Building Camp. The camp took place in a retired sawmill off Marquette County Road 550. (Journal photo by Christie Bleck)


ARQUETTE — Learning to use a power tool is one thing, but learning to use it surrounded by monarch butterflies and flying swallows is another.

Combining nature, scrap wood, power drills and simple innovation is part of the annual Adventure Building Camp, which takes place in a retired sawmill off Marquette County Road 550 in Marquette Township. The first week of the four-day camp, June 25-28, was for 6- to 8-year-olds, while this past week centered on kids ages 9 to 14. Next week’s camp, which begins Monday and runs through Thursday, also is for the 9-to-14 age group.

Campers use various building materials to make their own creations. This year, the creations are carts.

The Adventure Building Camp site is near the Dead River, one of the most scenic areas in the region.

That was fortuitous, considering the spot is a great place to build adventure. Proof of that were the natural materials, such as unique stones and a monarch egg on a leaf that the youngsters collected to look at during camp.

This is a cart-in-the-making at the Adventure Building Camp. (Journal photo by Christie Bleck)

In addition to that mini-nature museum, there also were the sounds of tools being used.

Running the camp were its director, Amber Dohrenwend, and her husband, Peter, who spend summers in Marquette but live in Japan the rest of the year.

“This year we’re doing a project where the kids have been salvaging some wheels, kind of things that we’ve got from thrift stores and some different places, some old bicycles, some walkers and even a pair of rollerblades,” she said.

On Thursday, the youngsters were to follow a path that goes around Tourist Park and soccer fields, having to use bicycles — and the vehicles they built — that were to be towed behind the bicycles, she said.

The campers worked in teams of two to build their carts, with each team powering its cart, or rickshaw, with one bicycle. Other campers then had to be pulled by the bicycle, Amber Dohrenwend said.

“There’s a variety of different designs that they come up with,” she said.

Sometimes bicycle wheels were used.

One cart used wheels sawed off from a walker.

Another had caster wheels.

Yet another cart was particularly innovative in design.

“This team decided to not use the wheels from the bike to create the cart, but they actually decided to use the bike itself,” Amber Dohrenwend said. “So, they created this a hitch and attached it to this bicycle, and then they actually decorated it because all the bikes that I got this year were pink and purple.”

That color scheme apparently was unacceptable, so the team used masking tape to create a zebra striping effect.

Although the Dohrenwends are there to lend support, the campers have to brainstorm designs themselves.

“There’s a lot of just trial and error, learning by experience and testing things to see if they work,” she said.

For instance, the team using the hitch design wanted to drill a giant hole through a piece of wood to attach webbing, she said.

However, there were a few technical issues.

“The block that they wanted to build the hole through was too big to fit in our vise on our drill press, so they had to improvise,” Amber Dohrenwend said.

It just so happened that both boys on the team like to sail.

“They talked about the idea of how we attach a sailboat with webbing, so they ended up with the design of using a figure 8 loop to attach it and make it secure,” she said.

The team also had a large canopy of wood at one point, but decided to remove it because it was too heavy, she said.

The cart, though, continued to be tweaked, complete with a water bottle holder.

Amber Dohrenwend said the first day of camp involved a “take-apart” activity to the kids could orient themselves on the hand tools. They also have been using some of the parts to add accoutrements to their carts.

Eventually, the carts’ movements needed to be tested. So, Wednesday morning, the campers set up a track to ride the carts.

When the moment of truth came, they found success.

“Last year, we worked in one large group, and everybody was working on the same project,” she said. “This year, we worked on smaller teams, and the projects are a little bit smaller in size.

“It’s been nice for kids to work with just one other team member. It’s easier to navigate some of the decisions and the design conflicts when you’re working on something together, and they’ve had a little more time, kind of tinkering with how the things work and getting things to function.”

With all the time and effort spent on the carts, what happens to them after camp is over?

She said team members can figure out a fair way to decide who gets to take the item home. If neither team member wants it, the cart will be taken apart, with parts used for the following camp.

Young age doesn’t seem to be a deterrent in learning how to successfully tinker. Amber Dohrenwend said the first camp, which was geared to ages 6 to 8, involved making a large ramp for their “super snake” project, with their carts connected.

She acknowledged the campers were successful with their individual carts, but combining them was difficult.

However, if there weren’t any challenge at all to the projects, the campers might not have learned — or enjoyed them — as much.

“It’s very fun,” said Siri Fiocchi, 9, of Marquette, who worked on her cart with the Dohrenwends’ daughter, Eleanor, 9. “You get to use your imagination.”

Even with their imaginations, how much guidance do the youngsters need?

“Once they get going, they’re pretty good,” Peter Dohrenwend said.

It might be just a matter of getting used to certain tools.

“They learn how to use the drill and the driver, and after that point, I think they can do lots,” he said.

For more information on the camp, visit

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is