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Waterways to Appreciation

Program teaches children to be future stewards of the land

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Wacey McClure, 9, wades knee high into the cool waters flowing through a canal near Swartz Lake. When McClure submerges a long plastic tube called a turbidity tube into the water, pockets of air bubble to the surface, as he makes sure it is filled to the top. This device measures the clarity of the water. Another student looks down the tube to see if they can locate the black and white disc on the bottom. If she can see it, the water is clean.

“If the water is really dirty that means death for the fish,” Warren Castor, 10, said.

Castor writes this information in his notebook as other students test the dissolved oxygen in the water. McClure, Castor and other Wonders of the Watershed participants are determining if the bull trout, an endangered native species, could live in this water. They determine a bull trout could live in these waters because it is high in oxygen and clean.

Instructor Melissa Bahr quizzed her group of students to see if they remembered the environmental factors the bull trout needed.

"What are the four C's again?" she asked.

"Clean, connected, cold water and complex," the group replied almost in unison.

Wonders of the Watershed is a program designed to teach children about their surroundings and hopefully create an appreciation for their environment. Though the program emphasizes water and its importance, children also learn about the many different animals and plants that live near this vital resource. Since this year’s program emphasizes restoration, students pick up trash and pull invasive weeds everywhere they go. Flooding and its effects, a very real problem throughout the state at this time, is also being studied

“Water connects everything,” Bahr said. “We study the water from the top of the mountains to the bottom of the sewers.”

The group has already visited Milltown Dam and Black Lake and plans to visit Flathead Lake City water and sewer and the Bison Range Pond.   

“I’ve always like science because you can figure out things you didn’t know before,” Tristen Adams, 10, said. “You get to do science but it’s more fun because you are outside.” 

For instructors Bahr and Valerie Umphrey, conducting their program outside was important. Participants are selected on a first come basis and are students entering the 5th and 6th grade at St. Ignatius Middle School. When they first started the program eight years ago, they wanted to teach children about their surrounding environment by getting them outdoors. Grants fund the Wonders of the Watershed program, which runs for two weeks. 

“Nowadays kids are not getting outside as much,” Umphrey said. “They love being outside. We want them to be at home in their home.”

Umphrey and Bahr said they have learned right along with children about their own environment. Bahr, a reading teacher at Polson Middle School, and Umphrey, a special education teacher at St. Ignatius Middle School, have both attended trainings hosted by the Clark Fork Watershed Education Program and others. They have also read books and research concerning water, botany and animals and have worked with local groups and entities to further enhance the program.

Before hiking to Swartz Lake, students listened to a presentation by tribal wildlife biologist Stephanie Gillin. 

“They are the future protectors of what we have,” Gillin said of the children. 

She brought several furs and track molds to show students. Gillin said she hopes to teach children to appreciate the different varieties of species that live in the area. She also wants to teach them why it is important to protect them and make sure they have clean water.

“Everything needs water to survive,” Gillin added.

Bahr said on their hike up to Swartz Lake, they found a dead weasel on the side of the path. 

“They were able to identify that is was a weasel because of the black on the end of the tail,” Bahr said. “They were already connecting and applying the information they learned.”

Due to a recent group of people leaving trash at Black Lake, Umphrey’s students were almost not allowed to visit the area. When they did go, Umphrey said her group of kids picked up this trash and more leaving the lake with about 70 lbs. of littered garbage.

“We want them to leave these areas looking better then when they came,” Umphrey said. “It is important because they are the future stewards.”

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