Outdoorsman shares his love of the wild

BY WENDI WINTERS For The Capital

When John Fishback was a little boy, he loved playing cowboys and Indians. He always fought to be the Indian.

Though traces of the American Indian way of life vanished from this region centuries ago, Mr. Fishback, now 40, teaches their customs and how to enjoy the natural environment to hundreds of youngsters each year.

The Crownsville man is almost always busy with nature programs for the county, interactive classroom projects, summer camps, craft-making classes, nature hikes, fishing adventures, tracking, survival classes and lots and lots of birthday parties. He also sponsors outdoor paintball events.

"Indians didn't have paintballs, and these won't ruin the environment since they're made out of fish oil," he said. "The goal is to get the kids outside."

Yet as a youth, he lasted only six months in Boy Scouts - because the troop wasn't into camping. He ambled through Anne Arundel Community College before earning a bachelor's degree in natural resources management at the University of Maryland. He also attended the Wilderness Awareness School founded by prolific author Tom Brown Jr

. Then, for a couple years, he wandered in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, scraping by on a sustenance salary. As part of an effort to prevent Princeton University from building a freeway through a pristine 2,000-acre parkland called the Turkey Island Corp. property in 1994, the Walker-Gordon Laboratory Co. of Plainsboro, N.J., hired Mr. Fishback to survey and inventory the park's wildlife for $1,000 a month.

He kept a meticulous diary of his discoveries, which evolved into a compelling proposal to prevent the native wildlife there from disappearing as the Indians did. The university's project was eventually turned down by the state.

Once the Princeton project ended, Mr. Fishback returned to Maryland and began teaching others about what he had learned. He started with several home-school classes, instructing them in the art of making dream catchers, gourd rattles, drums from deerhide, spears and blow darts.

He urges his rapt pupils outside to observe nature wherever they find themselves.

"I don't object to development," he said. "Wild animals are all around. You don't need a vista of buffaloes. Just stop to look at ants or the mice in the house."

In 10 years, Mr. Fishback's repertoire has expanded, along with the size of his audiences.

"He's a genuine outdoor fellow who enjoys sharing woodsman experiences with others," said Bill Schreitz, a St. Margaret's cabinetmaker who used to teach outdoor courses. "There's nothing like going through the woods with someone who can pop off Latin, Indian and local names of a plant or animal."

Billy Moulden runs a summer camp program each year in Sherwood Park.

"Over 15 years, I contracted all manner of naturalists from (the Department of Natural Resources) and others," he said. "John is the best. He's an expert on the natives who lived in this area and how they lived. He leads a survival school and a class on primitive technology, and he's made three log canoes the way the Indians did. He involves all the kids in it."

Parents see the benefits of his programs. Stevie Wilding of Crownsville noted: "Kids are too into TV and staying inside. They're not experiencing nature. He offers the opportunity to be in nature and be active." Her three teenagers used to be in his program and still proudly keep "all their spears and things they made." Her kids used to return from Mr. Fishback's week-long camping programs "dirty and happy."

For more informaion about Mr. Fishback's various programs visit www.fishbacknature.com.

Wendi Winters is a freelance writer in the Broadneck area.

Published January 31, 2005, The Capital, Annapolis, Md. Copyright 2005 The Capital, Annapolis, Md.

Email John: fishbacknature@verizon.net

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