W   hen I was a child, my family spent nearly every Sunday at my grandparents' dairy farm, which now sits at the bottom of Lake Marburg, part of the Codorus State Park out near Jefferson and Hanover.

Looking back on it now, I realize just how lucky my brother and I and all our cousins were to have had that opportunity to explore the wide-open pastures, the woodlands, the hills and the West Branch of the Codorus Creek that ran right through the middle of it all.

And we were encouraged to do just that -- explore to our hearts' content.

Sometimes we'd roll up a couple of old feed sacks and tie them up with binder twine so they looked like bedrolls, and we'd hike off to the far reaches of the farm to a clump of pine trees, where we'd set up camp and hang out for hours at a time.

We were pretending to be pioneers, I guess.

Other times, we'd spend the afternoon fishing for sunfish and perch, and when we got bored with that or became too hot, we'd just shed our clothes and jump into the creek. Sometimes we'd skinny-dip, and sometimes we'd swim in our underwear. We were none too fancy back in those days.

Our parents and grandparents were always close enough to keep a watchful eye, but far enough away so as not to cramp our style too much.

Those were glorious times. I remember them well and think of them often.

A recent weekend was a reminder of those times, partly because I was camping out for four days with my grandchildren, my daughter and my son-in-law, and partly because we were having our camping experience in Potter County, God's country in the very northernmost reaches of Pennsylvania.

Nothing up there but trees, water and critters. And plenty of open spaces.

Much of it is protected by the state in the form of eight state parks and many more thousands of acres of game lands and forest.

The smallish town of Coudersport, population of less than 3,000, is the county seat. Potter County itself has fewer than 18,000 residents, and they're spread out all over the place.

It reminded me, in fact, of the York County of my youth. Potter County is slightly larger than York County, by about 200 square miles or so. But York County has a significantly higher population -- about 420,000 more people live here.

But when I was a kid roaming York County's hills and meadows, there were about half that many people living in this county.

So on Saturday night in Potter County, as we were all sitting out in the middle of an immense open field waiting for darkness to consume us so we could see the stars above -- it was one of those "no lights" areas designed for stargazers -- I mentioned to my daughter, Stacy, a few of the things I miss most about my childhood.

These are usually the kinds of stories that will quickly send her off to sleep, but this time she was all ears.

"I'll bet I haven't seen a pheasant in York County for more than 25 or 30 years," I said, "and I'll bet it's been closer to 40 years since I've seen or heard a killdeer."

"What's a killdeer?" she asked. She's 38 years old, and she's never seen a killdeer.

It was then I realized just how lucky I was to have grown up when I did.

So I told her the story of how each Sunday, my parents would drop off my brother and me at the end of the quarter-mile lane that led back to my grandparents' farm. And we'd walk the rest of the way.

Sometimes it'd take half-an-hour or more to walk that short distance.

That's because both sides of the lane were lined with meadows, low grasses and critters galore. Among them were the killdeer, beautiful birds (a plover, I believe) that spent more time on the ground than in the air. They could fly, but would rather walk and run than fly. And with their long legs, they could move pretty quickly on the ground. They sort of look like a smaller version of a roadrunner.

And they built their nests on the ground, filling them with three or four speckled eggs that were camouflaged perfectly with their surroundings.

When predators or humans got a little too close to the nest, the parents would take off in the other direction, pretending to be injured, luring predators away from the nest.

And their call was simply beautiful. I'll always remember it.

Then the most amazing thing happened. Within a span of about 15 minutes, there appeared several pheasants and killdeer walking out of the tall grass within 100 feet of where we were sitting in Potter County.

I pointed them out, of course, for the benefit of my grandchildren, daughter and son-in-law. And my son-in-law, camera in hand, headed off in hot pursuit of the killdeer, hoping to take a picture or two.

Forget it. He never got close enough. And when they'd finally led him far enough away from their nest, they took to the air, flying back to where they came from.

Things like that don't happen in York County these days.

And I can't help but think we're all missing out on something fairly important.

There's some truth, I guess, in the old bromide that "one doesn't miss what one has never seen."

But I've seen it. Some of it, at least.

And now my grandchildren have seen some of it, too.

That's a good thing. Even if it was in Potter County, rather than York.

Columns by Larry A. Hicks, Dispatch columnist, run Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. E-mail: lhick s@yorkdispatch.com.