Seasonal Salmon Watch

Oak Grove Elementary 5th graders pose with a Chinook salmon.

“If there’s a big ole salmon ripping up the stream, all bets are off. The salmon are the star of the show, as it should be,” Ron Leonard says, describing what a teachable moment during a Salmon Watch field trip generally consists of. “I remember my reaction when I first saw spawning salmon in the wild, and it happens every time I’m out, kids have that experience for the first time.” 

Salmon Watch was founded by the non-profit organization Oregon Trout—later to become The Freshwater Trust(TFT)—in 1993. Since its advent over two decades ago, the program has educated more than 60,000 schoolchildren across the state. Due to a shift in their organizational mission, TFT discontinued the program at the end of 2010, but today it still exists in many counties due to “a consortium of interested folks who want to keep this thing going,” Leonard explains. 

When this shift first occurred, Leonard was a newly retired teacher in the Bethell School District of Eugene. During his prior 12 years as a middle school teacher, he had always taken his students on Salmon Watch field trips. Without TFT to take charge of organizing the trips, Leonard was encouraged to take on a leadership role. He developed a steering committee with members of the McKenzie River Trust, as well as with the help of his daughter, Shannon Richardson, who at the time was working as a biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Salmon and Trout Enhancement Program. That year, they put on 15 Salmon Watch field trips.  

Today, Leonard serves on the Linn-Benton Salmon Watch steering committee, which also includes members from the Calapooia Watershed Council, Benton Soil and Water Conservation District, the South Santiam Watershed Council, Siuslaw National Forest, ODFW, and teachers from the nine school districts involved. Leonard also helps to train volunteers leading the field trips, and volunteers at many himself, though he says he is “cutting back” to just 17 this season. 

Volunteers identify aquatic macroinvertebrates.

At each field trip, an overarching goal is to teach students that “everything is connected,” says Savannah Baber, Education Project Manager for the Calapooia Watershed Council, “The students participate in four field stations: salmon biology, water quality, riparian ecology, and aquatic macroinvertebrate sampling. What we try to show the students is that each of the stations—each of the topics they learn about—are connected. So if you remove one organism or one ecosystem service from the watershed, than everything would be impacted.”

Of all the stations, Leonard prefers to teach riparian ecology, it’s “something I know pretty well now, and can relate it to the students in a way that makes sense and makes it important to them.” However, he laughs, this wasn’t always the case: “If you asked me twenty years ago what a riparian area was, I had no clue. I’m sort of a Johnny-come-lately to this whole science thing.” With an educational background in political science and history, Leonard is perhaps a flagship example that anyone can learn to teach these topics. “That [first Salmon Watch] experience teaching the kids science and getting them out doors really sparked my imagination,” he says. 

When training new volunteers, Leonard likes to emphasize to them that “we aren’t in the business of telling our students what to think, we’re in the business of helping them to understand how to think about the process.” Baber agrees with this sentiment, and tries to teach by asking questions, rather than spouting off answers. For example, she says: “We ask the students, ‘why do we like salmon?’ and one will always raise their hand and say ‘I like to eat them’ and they’ll giggle because they think it’s a funny wrong answer. But it’s actually a very important answer because salmon are an important part of our culture, our economy—especially in the Pacific Northwest. Getting kids out there, seeing the salmon, realizing they are not only important to the environment, they’re important to us and we connect to them on a deeper level is pretty interesting.” 

The curriculum taught during Salmon Watch is embedded in next generation science standards, which further persuade teachers and school administrators to get their students out of the classroom for a day. Also helpful is the fact that reimbursement is provided for any transportation costs necessary to drive students to the local rivers where the field trips take place, making the trips essentially free. This is especially meaningful when considering how a lack of monetary resources can limit access to the outdoors.

“It’s pretty incredible how many 5th and 6th graders haven’t been out to the rivers that are in their back yard,” Baber says, “It’s incredible to see some of these kids just immerse themselves in nature for a day, because they’ve never done it before, they’ve never had the opportunity.”

Last year, the program reached 1,760 students from 30 schools during 36 field trips. 

Jana Seeliger teaches volunteers about water quality.

“To make that all happen we had 80 volunteers to lead the stations,” Baber recounts, “They are the blood, sweat and tears of the whole thing.” And to her, building this community of volunteers is almost as important as the field trips themselves, “one of the coolest parts of Salmon Watch is…seeing people from all walks of life, all kinds of careers, coming out and working with the students who live in their own community and teaching them about the importance of the ecosystems we have around us. Different volunteers have become friends with one another, and it’s become more than just a volunteer opportunity to check off volunteer hours, it’s become a community and people come back year after year because of that.”

This year, both Baber and Leonard look forward to bringing students and this overarching community out to see salmon spawning on the South Santiam and Alsea Rivers. Field trips will occur in these respective watersheds at Andrew Wiley Park between mid-September to the start of October, and at Clemens Park from the start of October to the start of November, covering a total of 27 dates. For those interested in trying their hand at volunteering, the last training will be held at Clemens Park on Saturday, September 29th from 9 am to 1 pm. To sign up, visit this link: 

By Ari Blatt

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