Groups organize education program up and down the Ausable River
By Zachary Matson
The fifth and sixth grade Keene Central students who waded into the Ausable River on Tuesday morning were playing the part of scientists. They were also doctors, in a way.
“We can sort of do a check up,” Carrianne Pershyn, biodiversity research manager at the Ausable River Association, told the students. “Like the doctor, you are going to take the pulse of the river.”
The heart of the river was beating strongly the day after storms dropped an inch of rain into the watershed surrounding their school, and the river’s east branch cascaded over a strip of rocks at the town park across from Marcy Field.
So the students and a team of scientists and educators from the Ausable River Association, Adirondack Watershed Institute and Lake Champlain Sea Grant pulled up their waders and went searching for small bugs that make the river their home.
Pershyn and the students brainstormed adaptations the river bugs – known as macroinvertebrates – might have to survive in the flowing waters: cling to a rock, hover on the water surface, burrow into the dirt. Working in teams, the students knocked loose rocks and sediment while a partner held a net downstream, capturing a mix of small rocks and sticks and, they would soon discover, a collection of local insects.
Back on dry land, the students picked through their nets and gently placed any form of life they could find into an ice cube tray filled with water. The more they looked, the more they found.
“Oh, my gosh!” one of the students said, using a pipette to move an insect. “It’s so small.”
“I know, I found something moving,” another added.
After the trays were full, they used a dichotomous key to categorize and identify the different types. A third student was working through the key, identifying a small bug as a mayfly larva.
“It has three tails and moving gills,” the student said.
The relative mix of species can offer scientists an indication of biodiversity, stream health and pollution threats. Differences at different stretches of the river can help scientists piece together a story about the river’s health.
The three science organizations, along with the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, are rebooting hands-on science education after two years of pandemic restrictions. Starting with the Keene students – less than 20 total kids make up the small district’s combined fifth and sixth grades – the science educators plan to conduct similar field trips in the fall with students in Lake Placid, Ausable Valley and Keeseville schools. By surveying stretches of the river local to the students, they will be able to collect a swath of water quality data across the length of the Ausable as it flows to Lake Champlain. Pershyn said they hope to host a summit with students from the different schools in the fall where the river meets Lake Champlain.
“We are basically going to follow the Ausable, collect some data at different sites and see how it changes as we get further downstream,” said Nate Trachte, an education specialist with Lake Champlain Sea Grant.
The education program grew out of a new “giant map” of the Lake Champlain drainage basin created by the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. At 35-feet-by-25-feet, the sprawling vinyl map shows the massive area that feeds Lake Champlain, on both sides of the state and international borders. Whether they live near the Boquet River or Chazy Lake, students can stand on the map and see how they fit into the lake’s larger neighborhood. Before collecting field data, the science educators took the map to Keene Central School and showed students how the water that flows from the mountains that surround them joins water from far afield in the lake, how all the mountains, knobs, streams, creeks and rivers, and the people around them, are connected. The map can be used in lessons across subjects and grade levels.
“I had the idea that we should bring the map on tour in the Ausable River watershed,” Pershyn said. “We believe getting scientists out with students directly is the best way to educate them.”
Keene teacher Megan Wellford said it was valuable for students to see the kinds of jobs they could pursue if they are interested in their natural surroundings and to learn about how they fit into a broader ecosystem.
“The career awareness that’s happening with all of the experts here is huge,” Wellford said. “It helps them understand this gift of the river they have.”
While at the river Tuesday, the students collected other field data and observations. They used a standard field kit to measure water temperature, pH levels and conductivity. They also estimated canopy cover, measured the water velocity – a brisk one meter per second – and listed other important field notes. One student mentioned the nearby road and the need to think about road salt pollution. Using a tall plastic tube with a black and white disk at the bottom, the students gauged the water’s turbidity.
“It’s super clear,” Trachte said. “That’s what we want to see for our Adirondack streams, really clear.”
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