River acts as classroom for Vermont students

Fifth graders from the Newton School look through the waters of the White River in Rochester, Vt., Wednesday, June 7 2017.
Fifth graders from the Newton School look through the waters of the White River in Rochester, Vt., Wednesday, June 7 2017. AP

What's a good way to get Vermont kids away from their screens? Offer to take them freshwater snorkeling in the Green Mountains.

Students from Rochester School and Newton School of Strafford took part Wednesday in a pilot program of the U.S. Forest Service, designed to teach kids about the importance of water quality and introduce them to the forest's recreation possibilities. In the process, they turned the West Branch of the White River into a classroom.

Staffers from the Green Mountain National Forest teamed up with a Maryland-based nonprofit group, NorthBay Adventure Camp, to get the kids in the water with snorkel masks and wet suits, looking for fish and bugs. NorthBay received a grant for the kid-sized wet suits and snorkeling masks, and have done similar programs for schools in Maryland, Alabama and Oregon, said Kris Raser, creative director for NorthBay.

A total of 350 students from Randolph, South Royalton, Bethel, Stockbridge, Braintree, Bridgewater and Pomfret, as well as students from the Horace Mann School for Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Boston, will participate in the two-week program, said Ethan Ready, the public affairs officer from the Green Mountain National Forest.

On Wednesday, a glorious sunny day after days of rain and cold temperatures, the 54 students took to the 50-degree water and turned over rocks in a stretch of the West Branch of the White River.

The river runs along the Brandon Mountain Road at the old Civilian Conservation Corps camp site, where the students got ready for their tutorial in Vermont river ecology.

Fish habitat restored

It happened to be a half-mile stretch of river that was heavily used by the Agency of Transportation for riverrun gravel during post-Tropical Storm Irene road re-construction. The river's fish habitat was restored two years ago by the Forest Service at a cost of $500,000, said Dan McKinley, a fisheries biologist with the Green Mountain National Forest.

"We designed something that looked like a river, with pools and riffles," McKinley said.

Down at the "bug station," students were learning to identify the larvae of stone flies, mayflies and caddis flies, and then they would get into wet suits and try to identify fish: brown and rainbow trout, sculpin and blacknosed dace, and crayfish.

Similar Vermont rivers can be home to 10 different species of fish, McKinley said.

The students were enthusiastic after their snorkeling. "I saw a rainbow trout," said Eve Huntingdon, a Rochester seventh-grader.

Her friend, Elizabeth Paige, another seventh grader, said it was a new experience. "I saw a lot of fish, and I saw bugs I'd never seen before."

For both girls, it was their first time snorkeling.

Rochester School teacher Shawn Lenihan said students from the seventh to 11th grades had signed up for the field trip. Lenihan, himself a former fish biologist for the Forest Service in Vermont, said it was a great opportunity to get the students outside to learn about the environment.

"I don't think kids are getting out as much as they should," he said, as the older students took a rest from their morning in the cold water and raced around.

"Most have never been here," he said, noting it was also a career exploration, with kids learning about people's jobs and what was available in Vermont. "They were nervous to get in the water at first," he said, but quickly enjoyed it. "I hope this continues in the future," he said.

One of Lenihan's students, Seamus Doyle, 16, a sophomore at Rochester, said he fished the river regularly.

"I've been fishing since I was 3. My dad taught me," Doyle said.

Doyle said Irene had completely rearranged the river. Longtime fishing hot-spots were destroyed, and new ones created, he said. During his turn snorkeling, Doyle said he saw small-mouth bass, brook and rainbow trout, mostly rainbow trout.

Insects and water quality

Newton School teacher Eric Walker had brought a large group of fifth grade students from Strafford, who eagerly put on the wet suits and inspected the river bottom for those tell-tale insects.

"I bring in the river" during science class, Walker said. "But nothing like this."

He said the Horace Mann School is a school for deaf students, and they expressed an interest to come to Vermont and participate.

McKinley and a host of other Forest Service staffers told the students about what insects to look for, and what they meant — if the water quality was excellent, good or mediocre.

Different bug species are less tolerant of pollution than others, and if the students found caddis flies or armored stone flies, that was a pretty good guarantee that the fast-moving river was pretty pure, McKinley said. Sure enough, with dip nets and large white plastic trays (better to see the river bugs), the kids found the insects that indicate pure, clean water.

New trout habitat

McKinley said the gravel extraction had left the river flat, with thin water coverage and not a friendly place for trout, who like cold water and deep pools.

McKinley and others set out to create the ideal trout habitat, bringing in scores of large Norway spruce stumps from a section of the national forest in Granville.

The Norway spruce, which is not a species native to Vermont, was planted years ago by the Forest Service, as an erosion-control measure, McKinley said. Cutting them down and using them to shore up the banks of the West Branch was a perfect solution, he said, since the Forest Service wanted to get rid of them.

The giant stumps were piled up along the riverbanks and should provide support for native species to return and anchor the banks.

Tree stumps weren't the only thing the Forest Service used: The river bed was sculpted to create gentle riffles and pools, interspersed with strategically placed giant rocks.

Ready said schools in the White River watershed were the first participants in the program because of the impact from Irene, which devastated many communities along the river in August 2011. Particularly hard hit was Rochester.

Next year, Ready said, he hopes the program will expand to the southern half of the forest, based in Manchester, and take kids snorkeling on the Batten Kill.