Missouri River serves as conservation classroom

The Clay County Park just southwest of Vermillion, situated by the Missouri National Recreational River, was the perfect site for 130 students from the region to celebrate the fifth Annual River Appreciation Day on Monday, Sept. 13. When sixth grade students from Vermillion, Irene-Wakonda and Centerville, and fifth graders from St. Agnes Catholic School, Vermillion, arrived, they were refreshed by the cool breeze and greeted by the honking of giant Canada Geese on the river for a swim.

The program, which was set up to handle half the students in the morning, and the other half in the afternoon, was a jam-packed crash course in conservation for students and teachers alike. To start off, local musicians Michelle Martin and Terry Hill sang river songs, followed by a brief rundown of activities by Grace Freeman, one of the coordinators of the event. Next, Jerry Wilson, a local naturalist, author and Clay County commissioner, welcomed the students and shared a few historical and personal observations about the Mighty Missouri.

Without the help of volunteers this event would not be possible. University of South Dakota (USD) XDIS students served as Trail Guides, and members of the Living River Group of the Sierra Club, and a few local river enthusiasts, pitched in to help the presenters at seven camps along the trail.

As Julie Lewison, a sixth grade teacher from the Vermillion Middle School, and a few of her students concluded their camp visits, she joined the crowd gathered to hear special music by the Oyate Singers to conclude the morning festivities. She was pleased by the variety of topics covered, the quality of the event organized by Freeman, with the help of fellow coordinators Cindy Kirkeby and Nancy Carlsen of Vermillion. Lewison was also impressed by the level of interest given to the students.

"There's a lot of learning going on, and such a wide range of topics that the students wouldn't have otherwise been exposed to," she said.

For example, they learned about animals and various mammals that make their home at the river. The students were taken back a bit when John Erikson, an educator and representative of the Sierra Club Living River Group, allowed them to examine a beaver's skull. He challenged them to think about how important it is for a mammal like the beaver to find its niche, and do a good job to raise their young.

"This is a lesson you can take away from mammals and apply it to your own life," he said. As the kids relaxed on a bison rug, they were awed as he let them touch and pass around the pelt of a badger and several other mammals.

Lewison, concerned that there's no art class for Vermillion students prior to the sixth grade, was especially thankful her students were encouraged to draw and express themselves through art and poetry.

"The kids live so close to the river, but I don't know how many of them get the chance to get out here for a visit," she said.

As she observed the camp presenters, she was inspired to stay actively involved in her students' learning. She explained, "You need to prepare for hands-on learning experiences on a regular basis. You've got to use different teaching methods in the classroom to help get the information across to the kids. Each presenter had a different teaching technique. If you only teach one way, you're only going to reach a limited number of students."

As students arrived at Poetry Camp located in the Overlook Area right along the riverside, Norma Wilson, a local poet and educator, said, "It's a beautiful day to be at the river. Fabulous! And we're going to write a Japanese Haiku about it."

As they looked out over the expanse of the Missouri River, she explained the basics of writing this three-line poem. "This is a big, grand river. Try to describe to the reader what you see," she said.

Norma, a member of the Vermillion Area Arts Council (VAAC), said, "In a haiku, you generally tell the reader what time of year it is. Write something about nature. Be free." And in just minutes, students cranked out some amazing poetry.

Then it was off to Art Camp. Nancy Losacker, a visual artist and also a member of the VAAC, instructed the youngsters to pick up the piece of charcoal provided and begin to draw.

"The thing about drawing is that you can do it for the rest of your life. It helps others to understand how you see the world.

"Just go for it. Don't think about it too much. It's a start," she explained. As she encouraged them, the students quickly caught on. They picked up a piece of charcoal and began to illustrate the beauty and majesty of the river. When it was time to leave for the next campsite, she said, "Remember, you can draw anywhere, anytime. I used to draw in science . . . and math class."

One of the volunteers joked, "Were you paying attention?"

"I think so," said Losacker, as the group chuckled with her.

With no time to waste, they followed their Trail Guide off to Soils Camp. Deron Ruesch, the district conservationist for the Clay County USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), discussed how soils form along the river. "Who can tell me what the river's nickname used to be before dams were put in?" he asked.

One student replied, "The 'Big Muddy.'

"That's right," Ruesch replied. It got that name due to the heavy silt content that was often disturbed due to the powerful force of the water moving downstream. Three more volunteers were called on to help combine a mixture of sand, silt, clay and water in a glass jar. Once the bottle cap was tightly secured, another student took hold of it and shook the contents of the jar.

"This represents the 'Big Muddy,' " Ruesch said.

Next, referring to the activity in the glass jar, he inquired, "When it floods, what's going to settle to the bottom first? The sand, silt or clay?"

"The sand settles first," a student answered.

"Then the silt, and then the clay." Ruesch said. "The experiment taking place in this glass jar shows you exactly what happens in the river during a flooding event."

Then he coaxed another volunteer to help him extract a soil profile from below the ground. The first student pushed, but made little headway. Ruesch called on a buddy to help. Still no success. Because there was a very dense sand layer, it made it tough to push the soil probe through this layer. So at that point, Ruesch grabbed a hold of the soil probe to help the two boys. He blurted out, "Now push!" They removed the soil probe from the ground and examined the soil profile where the sand, silt and clay started and stopped. "The soil profile (i.e. sand, silt, clay layers) indicates each time a flooding event has occurred."

Anne Doherty-Stephan, chief of interpretation and education, and volunteer Nicole Syder, for the National Park Service (NPS), Yankton, talked about the outstanding, remarkable values like natural, cultural and recreational resources protected at the 392 national parks throughout the country. Believe it or not, this 59-mile stretch is protected as the Missouri National Recreational River under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

At the Aquifer Camp, Sarah Chadima, a geologist with the South Dakota Geological Survey, discussed how water moves underground and through the aquifer. She explained how water flows through different kinds of rocks, sediment layers, and the value of water quality. She also illustrated how water pollution migrates from its source to surrounding areas through the aquifer.

Next up, Boat Camp. Harry Freeman, an educator and the spokesperson for Boat Builders & River Experiencers, quizzed students to determine if they could tell him the differences between a kayak and a canoe. He also reminded the kids to wear their life jacket when involved in water sports, calling it his "seatbelt of the sea." Then he invited the students to break up into teams of two to see which team could make the fastest sailboat to race down the Missouri River, scheduled for later that day.

As students returned to the Picnic Area near the end of their session, Jerry Wilson encouraged them to come back to enjoy the river.

"Clay County Park is situated on one of the greatest rivers in the world. We live near a great place to visit right in our backyard. The Missouri River is 2,600 miles long, and it's still flowing free. We live on the last natural stretch of the Missouri River, just like it was when Lewis and Clark came through 200 years ago. Don't forget about it. And don't forget to protect our land and water. Keep it clean for future generations to enjoy," he said.

Financial grants for the event were provided by the Living Water Group of the Sierra Club, South Dakota Water Festival Fund, Vermillion Area Arts Council and the Vermillion Basin Water Development District.
Various contributions were also shared by American Rivers, Clay County Parks & Recreation, Jones Food Center, the National Park Service, Project WET, South Dakota Department of Game, Fish & Parks, Outdoor Campus, South Dakota Discovery Center, University of South Dakota Facilities Management and the Vermillion Area Arts Council.

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