It's hard not to love school when your classroom is an outdoor carnival.
More than 700 students were getting an education and having a blast doing it Tuesday at the fourth annual Salmon Celebration at Johnson Lake Camp-ground in Kasilof.
The festival, coordinated by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, helps teach students from around the Kenai Peninsula all about their environment through hands-on activities and peer-led instruction. The department also sponsors similar festivals in other regions of the state.
The focus, as one might guess from the name, is salmon. Booths highlight the life cycle of the native fish, as well as the watersheds in which they live, the insects they eat, the animals they interact with and the pollutants that threaten them. And, of course, it also highlights the skills needed to catch the fish.
Throughout the day, about 740 kindergarten through sixth-grade students from Kalifornsky Beach, Tustumena, Redoubt, Mountain View, Sears and Sterling elementary schools, as well as Ninilchik School and home-school programs, wandered through the carnival-style atmosphere learning about salmon and the ecosystem.
Volunteers from the Kenai River Sport Fish Association and Kenai River Professional Guide Association sponsored fly-casting and spin-casting activities, and members of the Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation taught the children about water and boating safety.
At other booths, students took the lead teaching their peers. The sixth-graders in Jill Dufloth, Terri Carter and Lesley Murphy's classes at Kalifornsky Beach Elementary have been studying ecosystems throughout the year and spent Monday being trained to put on education demonstrations for other students.
"(The students) are learning to appreciate the resources and take care of them," said Patti Berkhahn, a fisheries biologist based in the department's Soldotna office. And, she added, the sixth-grade leaders are not only learning new things but also cementing what they've learned by teaching others.
The student-run booths included everything from face painting to animal hide and track displays and from fly-tying to bug displays.
For example, Joey Aho and Trevor Matthew, students in Dufloth's class, ran the aquarium display. As the hordes of students filed by the booth, the pair pointed out the different kinds of young fish in the tank everything from coho and king salmon to rainbow trout and Dolly Varden.
Jonathan Loveall, also in Dufloth's class, was one of the students running the insect display. Microscope-style jars held frog eggs, damsel fly larva, diving beetles and shrimp, while another aquarium offered a view of leeches and freshwater shrimp. It's important for people to know how to identify the insects because they're all around, Jonathan said.
"We have them around our environment, fish eat them, and people should know what's in the lakes," he said. "And it all ties in to salmon, because salmon eat these things."
Youngsters watch as fish swim free during the release.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Bryson Winslow and Aaron Nordmeyer, more of Dufloth's students, ran the watershed display, graphically explaining to their peers how pollutants could seep into lakes and rivers.
Using a plastic watershed table complete with houses, factories, mountains, streams and a lake as well as water and "contaminants" made of cocoa, the pair demonstrated how pollution could seep into the water cycle and flow great distances into area lakes. The students started with a clear blue lake, but after adding factory "sludge," dirt and other pollutants, ended up with a murky mess.
"Would you want to swim or fish in that lake?" Bryson asked his audience.
"Some people don't understand what pollution can do to water sources," he explained later. "That's what we're trying to show."
While the touring students enjoyed the variety of booths, eliciting "oohs," "ahs" and, in the case of the insect display, "yucks," the most popular feature of the festival was the fish release.
Fish and Game stocks Johnson Lake with rainbow trout and salmon each spring, and this year, students had the chance to help. Students from Carter's class assisted the department staff as young fish (in the "fry" stage of life, as the students readily explained) were netted off a hatchery truck into buckets of water, then each student at the celebration had the chance to release at least one fish into the lake.
For the sixth-grade helpers, the activity was just one small part of a bigger project.
Carter's students have been raising salmon in their classroom aquarium, watching as the fish hatched from eggs and grew through the life cycle before releasing them at Centennial Park.
"It's a really cool life cycle to watch," said sixth-grader Elainnah Logoutaris, one of Carter's students.
The class also has spent the year working at Slikok Creek, where they tested water and observed the environment, and dissecting fish and other animals.
"Miss Carter's all, like, hands on," said sixth-grader Sadie Heaton, who said she wants to be a science teacher when she grows up.
"We love the Salmon Celebration," she added. "This is the first year we've got to do it, and we're having a blast."
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