BANGOR, Maine — Knee-deep in Kenduskeag Stream — or often well above knee-deep, despite their teacher’s explicit instructions — a team of sixth-graders wallowed back and forth on Thursday morning, searching for the perfect spots to release a new generation of tiny Atlantic salmon.
Not good spots. Not average spots. Perfect spots.
As Lynn Caron, the science teacher at All Saints Catholic School, had told them minutes before, the salmon that the students had raised from eggs over the past five months would need all the help they could get.
“If we just dump them in, they might go, ‘Oh my gosh! I’m gonna die now!’” Caron had explained. “We don’t want that to happen. So introduce them into the stream very, very slowly.”
The salmon, which were raised at the Bangor school as part of the Atlantic Salmon Federation’s Fish Friends program, were to be coddled a bit.
“When we release the salmon, we don’t want to shock the poor little guys, so we’re going to wade in the stream and try not to stir up too much of the mud on the bottom,” Caron said. “Find a nice spot, maybe where there’s a few weeds or a few rocks, open your bag of salmon, let a little bit of the stream water get into the bag and then just wait for one full minute.”
Sixth-grader Casey Walden took his teacher’s words seriously. After releasing several salmon into the stream, he stood by and tried to convince his fish that they ought to move along.
“OK, go to the bottom,” he said, leaning over to check their progress (or their lack of progress). “Get used to it. You can get used to it. You just don’t want to see my big foot.”
Eventually, the fish moved along. And eventually, Walden and his classmates moved on to other tasks during a morninglong scientific field trip that had been months in the making. They checked water chemistry. They did a survey of invertebrates that they scooped off the stream floor.
And they took a snack break. (Goldfish crackers, naturally).
Alongside the group was John Burrows, director of New England programs for the ASF, and filmmaker Carter Davidson, whose Gray Ghost Productions is working on a documentary on the program.
Caron said All Saints students have been participating in the Fish Friends program for 10 years; Burrows said nearly 100 Maine schools participate in the program for fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders.
Students receive salmon eggs in January, take notes on their progress, and watch as they hatch and progress to the fry stage. At that point, the fish are ready to start feeding, and are released into water that they will, as adults, return to in order to spawn. If they’re lucky.
Burrows explained to the students, who started with 200 eggs and released 173 fry into the stream, that perhaps two of those fry would return to the Kenduskeag to reproduce.
Caron said the program has been a hit with her students for years.
“They get really excited,” Caron said. “They’re really invested. They’ve been watching these fish since they were little eggs.”
During their invertebrate survey students found a stonefly, several other insects and some eggs of undetermined origin stuck to the bottom of a rock. One student thinks he saw something else, but needed some expert advice.
“Is there such a thing as an albino eel?” he asked. “Because I saw one.”
The students also were treated to an impromptu air show as they made their way to the stream: Eight crows took turns harassing a bald eagle that was flying over the stream.
“Holy bald eagle!” one student exclaimed.
Sixth-grader Joey Brozyna has been hearing about the Fish Friends program for years: Two older sisters also raised salmon as sixth-graders. And he enjoyed the experience when his turn finally arrived.
“I thought it was really cool. Every week, on Thursday or Friday, we would look at the fish and draw pictures, descriptions, and [tell] how long and how big they were getting,” Brozyna said. “We got to actually see them grow over the period of time.”
Brozyna said studying salmon and learning about their habits, life cycles and habitat also was informative.
“It said that they could jump 10 feet high and we all thought that was really cool because we thought it could jump past the [barriers] if it was full-grown,” Brozyna said.
And the chance to spend some time outside of the classroom and wallow around in the stream was pretty cool, too.
“I thought it was fun,” said Brozyna, who, along with his lab partner, caught, photographed and released a small fish during the the stream survey. He also saw several leeches, including a large one that he intended to capture. The leech had other plans, and didn’t wait for Brozyna to return to the stream with the proper leech-catching implement.
Still, he thought the experience was worthwhile. And his favorite part?
“We got to get in the water. It was cold,” he said.