Celebrating salmonids: Peninsula students get hands-on lesson

Posted: Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Perhaps only in Alaska can a Department of Fish and Game biologist lean on the horn of a hatchery truck, and get the same reaction from any child within earshot as an ice cream truck tooling through a suburban neighborhood on a sweltering summer day.

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Sydney Helms and Tiana Faumui, both third-graders at Kaleidoscope School of Arts and Sciences, watch juvenile fish on display in an aquarium Tuesday at Johnson Lake State Recreation Area during the annual Salmon Celebration.

Blasting the horn of the truck however, Patti Berkhahn, the Kenai Peninsula Aquatic Education Fisheries Biologist, did just that on Tuesday.

Sure enough, as soon as she did, a horde of students raced down the camp road at the Johnson Lake State Recreation site in Kasilof, to watch the truck offload its cargo.

The release of thousands of hatchery raised rainbow trout into the lake was just one part this year's 10th annual Fish and Game Kenai Peninsula Salmon Celebration.

The event aims to teach elementary-aged students about the life cycles of fish, what they need to survive and how people can impact them.

Additionally students learned about wildlife, Dena'ina history, boating safety and fishing.

The event is set up with demonstration booths that let students do hands-on experiments and activities.

If taking a break from the classroom and spending the day under a blue sky isn't sweet enough, the participants also got a short reprieve from their teachers.

Many of the demonstration booths are run by fellow students.

At a booth titled, "You don't know scat," Kaitlynn Boyer and Tyler Varner, sixth-graders from Sterling Elementary, taught their younger peers how to identify animal scat using disturbingly real looking rubber molds.

Varner assured his pupils the droppings were fake.

And why is knowing your scat important?

Safety, they explained.

"If it's like fresh, and it's a big animal, you'd probably want to head the other way, because it could be dangerous," Varner said.

At a nearby station, Micah Sterling, Ciarra Mahan and Destiny Tipler, also sixth-graders at Sterling Elementary, emphasized the same message with their furry table.

Their booth was covered by the pelts of a black and a brown bears with replica skulls as well as a wolf pelt.

They said the top two questions they were getting were how big the bears could get and how to tell the difference between the two species.

While they explained what the habitats, food sources and characteristics of the animals are, they also said they were keeping their fellow students safe when outdoors.

"We can help them educate themselves about what the dangers are of having an encounter with a brown bear or a black bear," Mahan said.

"Or any other sort of animal," Sterling added.

In keeping with the name of the event, many of the booths were dedicated to fish.

At the "Salmon Wheel of Misfortune," students learned just how tough it is to be a salmon.

"Out of the so many thousands of eggs laid, there's a really small chance that even one fish will survive," said Courtney Barker, a sixth-grader from Sterling Elementary.

Barker, and her classmates Tyann Reed and McKayla Hensley, were using a large wheel that students came up and spun to see what their salmon fate would be.

For most it was dismal.

Of the dozens of possible outcomes the salmon could have from the moment they popped out as eggs, only one narrow sliver resulted in the fish surviving all the way back to its spawning grounds.

Many learned with, varying amounts of disappointment, that they had been gobbled up by predators, washed away in floods, poisoned by pollution or worse.

Barker, Reed and Hensley had demonstrated the pollution aspect earlier in a different booth, where they dusted a simulated watershed, complete with roads, hills homes and a river, with cocoa powder pollution.

They said the cocoa could represent anything, from pesticide to trash.

Next they had their students wash it all away with a furious storm unleashed by spray bottle clouds, all to see where the chocolaty pollution ended up.

Seeing the rivers turn brown sent the message home, the girls said their students were impressed, and many vowed on the spot that they would never litter.

That was perhaps the greatest reward for the young teachers.

"You feel proud because you're actually teaching them something," Barker said.

Dante Petri can be reached at dante.petri@peninsulaclarion.com.

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