Swimming free: Class takes final step in project

Posted: Thursday, May 06, 2010

Kaleidoscope School of Arts and Science students wished several hundred of their former classmates well on Tuesday as they sent them off into the great big world.

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Youngsters fan out along the bank of the Kasilof River near its outlet from Tustumena Lake to pick up trash on the final day of the Salmonids in the Classroom project. The curriculum uses salmon to teach a wide range of material and is utilized by elementary schools across the Southcentral region of the state.

There were no caps or gowns though, and no band played "Pomp and Circumstance." Indeed, the reception afterward was a bit chilly.

Dave Knudsen's fourth-grade class, along with a number of others from around the Kenai Peninsula, have been raising juvenile silver salmon since early October as part of the Department of Fish and Game's Salmonids in the Classroom Program.

The program offers K-12 students an up-close view of the salmon life cycle by putting fish in the classroom.

On Tuesday, Knudsen's students poured out the little fish, hardly two inches in length, into a still partially ice-clad Centennial Lake, in Kasilof.

For Haley Miller, one of Knudsen's students, setting the fish free was a mixed ordeal.

"It was kind of cool and kind of sad," Miller. "It was also happy because they were going where they're supposed to be."

It's been a long road for the salmon.

Miller and her classmates traveled to Anchor Point back in October to participate in an egg take, where they combined the eggs and milt from two Bear Creek silvers with a little freshwater, and presto, made hundreds of baby salmon.

Well not quite.

The fertilized eggs were placed in an aquarium in the school's entranceway where they remained buried in the gravel for some time while the salmon developed.

For Seth Ganley, also in Knudsen's class, who had never seen salmon develop, the best part of raising the fish was when they finally emerged from their gravelly confines to swim around.

"It was awesome," he said.

For both Ganley and Miller, one of the more exciting aspects of raising the fish was their twice-daily feedings, which were always something of a frenzy.

"They would swim into each other's tails and fight to get to the top for more food," Miller said.

Ganley said he also enjoyed checking on the fish when he'd come to school.

"It's fun to just see them in the tank eating the food, swimming around," he said. "I liked those fish. I wish we could keep them in a tank. I have no idea why we had to let them go."

Ganley had two fish he even went so far as to name, Swirly and Speedy, recognizable by their swimming patterns he said.

Miller said she wasn't sure how their fish would fair in the lake, noting there were many dangers that didn't exist in the school.

She explained that the fish that have learned to stay near the surface around feeding time could become easy pickings for aerial predators.

"When they go to the top, say a seagull sees them waiting there for food, they're going to swoop down and eat them," she said.

So far, the juvenile cohos' only predator has been the aquarium tank filter, which ended up killing a few this year, Miller said: "This was not exactly the smartest batch of fish."

According to Patti Berkhahn, Kenai Peninsula aquatic education fisheries biologist with Fish and Game in Soldotna, the fish have had it good. They're survival rate will likely drop down to the one percent that salmon face in the wild.

While their finned classmates learned some rather harsh lessons early on, the students studied the intricacies of salmon by doing hands-on activities like dissections, ice fishing and a field trip to learn about habitat as well as in class work.

Berkhahn said she gets plenty of help with the program through partner agencies.

As students get older, she'll pour more details into her lessons.

She might also offer different lessons, doing comparative dissections instead of just a simple examination, and will present to high school student for example, about careers and technology.

For Knudsen, who's had his classes partake in the program for 10 years, it's a no-brainer.

"I could not imagine not doing it, it's just so important," he said.

Editor's note: This is the final part of a multi-piece series following Dave Knudsen's class at Kaleidoscope School of Arts Science in Kenai as they study different aspects of the salmon lifecycle through the school year.

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

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