Savannah, Ga. — Awareness is their primary product, and, since 1973, Wilderness Southeast has been packaging it in ready-made or tailor-made pack trips for young people from eight months to 80 years. By foot or canoe power, or both, they explore the coastal, marsh, swamp, and mountain areas of the Southeast, mainly in Georgia, Florida, and the Carolinas.
This fast-growing enterprise of Dick and Joyce Murless is based in a modest yellow cottage nestled under mossy oaks and overlooking creek and marsh near Savannah. There are six other regulars equipped with enthusiasm and higher degrees in biology, recreation, or environmental sciences, who lead excursions and, when at home base, do the necessary processing of papers and people and equipment that can be rented for your trip.
Other teacher-counselors with scientific or geographical knowledge of their areas help with specific programs.
Tailoring trips to the needs of a school or group is a specialty of Wilderness Southeast, and the list with which it has explored includes the American Littorel Society, Principia Upper School, Jacksonville Country Day, and Cranbrook Middle School in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
The first day I visited, Joyce was in the mountains with the third grade of the Padaia School of Atlanta (an independent, unstructured alternative school). ''She has her master's in early childhood education, so she's better with the younger ones,'' conceded her husband with some pride.
When we met later, I asked her what one did for the better part of a week in the wild with the third-graders. She said, ''At that age it's all awareness - touching, listening, smelling, watching - but that's my favorite part of it for any age. Most grown men feel silly touching a tree trunk, and I really enjoy breaking down some of those walls they have built around themselves.''
The general process is similar for all trips. First there are sensory immersion activities and basic observation exercises.
''We move from there,'' the brochure states, ''to ecological sleuthing in each community; to understand through seeing at work the principles of diversity , adaptation, competition, energy flow, succession, and change. The emphasis is on personal and cooperative discovery, exploration, and synthesis.''
Learning about outdoor skills and learning to live together are the other ingredients. As Dick says, ''It's part biology and part group dynamics - you decide how many hours a day you want to 'biologize' and we design your program around that. Once in a while there are a few who are just in it for fun in the sun, but we can usually find something to engage their minds!''
Early one Sunday morning I arrived at Savannah's Oatland Island Education Center to observe the first of three summer sessions of ''Coastal Experience,'' the annual 11-day program offered to ''gifted and talented'' junior high students from all over the Southeast, doing their introductory ''immersing.''
I followed the voices to the back of the vast red brick building, formerly used for mosquito control, into a cavernous laboratory where osmosis was being discovered, weighed, and annotated in regard to a saltwater-saturated worm (which then got to bathe in fresh water and gratefully return to its dishpan of mud).
Paul Heyward, a science teacher at the Padaia School who has been at this for seven summers, then led his six rapt seventh-graders to a thoughtful discussion of what saltwater could do to oak trees at the edge of a marsh.
In the next-door lab Karen Hughes from Minnesota and her group were working with a hydrometer and finding the components of saltwater.
The third group was at the lab at the dock house with Bob Williams, a science teacher at the Friends School in Baltimore, filling jars with river water (without letting in any bubbles of air) and putting it through an intricate experiment to see how much oxygen was present (eventually tying it in with why ponds get stagnant and the role of marshes).
During a munch-and-talk break under the great live oaks Bob explained the week's plans to me while Paul, Karen, and intern, Liza, divided the campers into two ''knots.'' A group grasps hands every which way and then tries to unravel itself into a circle without letting go. One succeeded - one didn't.
Sometimes the knot just works its way around a circle, but the players exercise all sorts of mental and physical resources and laugh a lot.
The next day they were to set out for the real wilderness on Green Island, where for six days they would explore; do a 36-hour ''watch'' in two-hour shifts , observing all changes in weather, tides, plant life, and critters; spend one day on the beach at Warsaw Island, where the sea turtles come up on the beaches to lay their eggs; and do a ''marsh tangent'' - actually trek out over a marsh to see and possibly experience to knee depth its various sections.
Back to Oatland for laundry and crabbing and boat trip and banquet. I had a feeling that by Day 11 they would have tied and untied all kinds of ''knots.''
Meanwhile back at headquarters, Dick Murless was setting forth for ''Earth Trek,'' a new adventure in the North Carolina mountains for high-schoolers, a program he has designed for the National Wildlife Federation to serve campers who have outgrown Ranger Rick.
It is advertised as an environmental education backpacking program in the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Pisgah Forest wilderness area. Dick is a natural for this, since he is the author and original mapper of the Sierra Club totebook , Hikers Guide to the Smokies, a marvelous compendium of information on trail lengths, levels of difficulty, water sources, etc.
This summer the Murlesses' college son is rehiking the 600 miles of trail for an updated version.
The adventures offered by Wilderness Southeast are scheduled throughout the year except for December. Trips have inviting titles such as: Chattoga River, Backpack/Raft; Sandhills to the Sea; Incredible Edibles; photographic workshops; the Sea Islands of Georgia; and the Okefenokee - equipment needed: a 35-mm camera and lots of film.
Those interested in what Wilderness Southeast offers school groups or individuals should write: Wilderness Southeast, 9521 Whitfield Ave., Savannah, Ga. 31406.