Thinking Like a Mountain: Share Your Knowledge

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Students looking at macroinvertebrates

Things didn’t start out well on the school field trip.

I teach English and creative writing at Lord Botetourt High School in Daleville, Virginia. And like Ikes across the country, I’m passionate about the outdoors and sharing my outdoor skills. So I volunteered to co-lead a class field trip with ecology teacher Jodie Caldwell.

Our mission: lead her class on a Save Our Streams expedition to Tinker Creek, a tributary of the Roanoke River that flows through the school’s property. But on the walk there, students were more tuned in to their iPhones than the natural world around them, and I worried we’d be talking to blank faces (or worse, the tops of their heads as they stared down at their screens) the whole time.

I was amazed how quickly apathy turned to enthusiasm once we arrived at the creek. Jodie arranged the students into teams to perform different tasks, including water sampling, seining for macroinvertebrates and minnows, organizing critters in ice cube trays, and recording data. The scene was a proverbial beehive of activity. Real learning was taking place. And young people, most of whom had probably never waded in a creek in their lives, were muddy, wet... and having a grand time.

I’d fished Tinker Creek but never this close to its headwaters. I very much wanted to know which gamefish finned this part of the stream, so I quickly gravitated toward the students preparing to deploy a seine net. None of them had used one before, so I instructed the netter on how to position a seine tight to the bottom of the creek to prevent creatures from escaping underneath it. Then I showed the two waders how to scrape their feet along the bottom as they made their way toward the seine.

Students using a seine net

Excitement built in the students’ voices as the duo waded toward the seine, and I have to admit that when they lifted it, I rushed over to see their haul. What they corralled wasn’t all that unusual: crayfish, small minnows, and snails. But to the student trio in the creek, it was pure magic — an undiscovered world that had suddenly opened up to them.

Jodie came over and, after looking at the underside of a crayfish, proclaimed it a male because of its visible reproductive organ. More students came over and questions ensued – mostly about the love lives of crayfish.

After the seining experience, I had a flashback to my youth. No one among my parents or grandparents fished or hunted, but for some inexplicable reason I was attracted to the outdoors. Beginning around age five, I continually disobeyed my parents’ strict orders to stay away from a small creek that was about 300 yards from our home. I would tote down to the creek a discarded window screen that I had fashioned into a crude seine net, and for hours I would wade upstream, marveling at every squirming critter I captured.

I had heard about creatures called bass, trout, and sunfish. Were any of the creatures I dredged up one of those gamefish? I remember wishing I had someone who could help me identify them.

This is where the Ikes come in. Like the child I once was, there are boys and girls waiting for someone to open up the natural world to them. And there are elementary, middle, and high school teachers in public, private, and religious schools across the country who would welcome League members who could talk to their classes about the outdoors or help with field trips like the one I’ve described.

The scene was a proverbial beehive of activity. Real learning was taking place.

After Jodie finished her talk on crayfish, a small group of students came over to me, and one asked if I knew which gamefish were likely in the creek. Several of the students had been in my English or creative writing classes and knew I loved to fish. I said that the stream probably held smallmouth bass, rock bass, and redbreast sunfish. Next, I pointed to an outside bend upstream from us and said there were probably some bass “tight to that bank right now.”

“You think a crankbait would catch them?” a boy asked.

“Yep,” I replied, and the boy nodded his approval. He explained to the rest of the group how he would “work that bend,” and in turn, this led to the young man and me explaining to these (hopefully) budding anglers how to retrieve a crankbait with the current.

I walked over to another seining patrol where Jodie was examining the catch – mostly black fly larvae and snails. Those creatures had come from a small creek that dribbled into Tinker, and the algae-covered rocks, smelly water, and black fly larvae spoke volumes. Jodie explained what runoff was and how the tributary creek was polluted – and how that negatively affected this portion of Tinker as well as waters downstream.

Jodie and I then walked upstream to where students had seined scores of mayfly and stonefly larvae. “Awesome find!” Jodie enthused as she explained that these types of larvae were signs of a healthy stream because they have a low tolerance for pollution.

On the way back to the classroom, the students chattered about what they had just experienced, the digital world taking a back seat. Jodie invited me to a tree identification field trip in a few weeks, which I agreed to. It would tie in with two topics I previously discussed with her class: “Predators and Their Prey” and “Invasive Plants and How To Eliminate Them.” I had also presented a modified version of these topics to local third-grade classes at Greenfield Elementary School.

We Ikes have the skills to be ambassadors for conservation in our schools. Project-based learning like the kind Jodie Caldwell does is a great way to engage young people and turn them into life-long learners as well as conservationists. Having taught for some 45 years now, I know I’m always looking for guest speakers to share their knowledge with my classes. Consider sharing your knowledge at a school near you.

Learn how to monitor stream health

Bruce Ingram is the author of five books on river fishing; a book on hunting, fishing, and gathering for food (Living the Locavore Lifestyle); and three young adult fiction novels. For more information, contact him at