BAR HARBOR, Maine — The line of seaweed farther inland indicated to the high school students that they stood below the high tide mark, on a muddy boulder that was daily submerged with ocean water mixing with the freshwater of Northeast Creek.
The winding creek, gray as the sky and dimpled with drizzle, runs into Thomas Bay; and the mouth of the creek, the transition between land and sea, is a nutrient-rich estuary smelling of salt and rotten eggs.
Suntanned and at ease with one another, the students standing on the creek bed were strangers just eight days before. “Islands Through Time,” an interdisciplinary course for high school students (ItCH) at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, had brought them closer together than they expected as they hiked coastal mountains and slept in a former lighthouse keeper’s house.
“I think it’s really exciting just to experience new things, and with this program, they’ve really been racking up those experiences,” said Helen Hess, the College of the Atlantic faculty who was leading the exploration of Northeast Creek on Wednesday. “It’s a two-week jaunt in ecology, the study of the relationship of humans and their natural and social environments.”
Two girls held hands as one struggled to pull her boot out of the estuary mud, and then followed a path through the tall grass to stand with the rest of the group and watch Benjamin Plohr, 18, of Penobscot and Will Benoit, 16, of Bangor drag a beach seine through the water in search for mummichogs, small fish (growing to be about 5 inches long) that swim the shallow waters of the East Coast.
Benjamin and Will were the only two Maine residents of the 13 students participating in the program. The rest came from New York, New Jersey, Tennessee, Massachusetts and South Carolina for “Islands Through Time,” for which the Northeast Creek is one of the many outdoor classrooms for students to experience the wilderness and make connections between science, art and humanities.
“This is certainly an invitation to think about things in a new way, because the world is complicated; it’s not compartmentalized, it’s interrelated,” said Hess. “It’s taking a break from high school learning and engaging more authentically with reality.”
Estuaries are an ideal place to talk about connections. They are a place where saltwater meets freshwater, and the creatures thriving there must have the ability to adapt to different salinity levels. Estuaries are also connected people in unpredictable ways. For example, the mummichogs’ ability to adapt to different salinity makes them a prime subject for studying ion channels that transport chloride across membranes, and the human genetic disease cystic fibrosis. Mummichogs are also used as ice fishing bait.
“It’s quite a spectacle, how many fish you can get in one scoop,” said Hess. “Mummichogs are very hardy. They can tolerate fresh and full seawater, so they love it in the estuaries and there are zillions of them.”
When Benjamin and Will had captured about 10 mummichogs in their beach seine, Hess placed the fish in a clear bucket to talk about their lifestyle and anatomy as students gathered around and asked to hold the fish before releasing them back in the creek. Their hands-on approach to learning has reached a whole new level over the past week as they became more comfortable with the wilderness.
“Most of us don’t have experience in any of this stuff,” said Zoe Fassett-Manuszewski, 16, of upstate New York as she talked of bird watching and one of her favorite trips, hiking Cadillac Mountain and learning about the history of Sir Cadillac.
After releasing the mummichogs, the group crossed Route 3, which the creek runs under heading inland, and put in a fleet of canoes to head up the creek in search of a freshwater habitat of painted turtles and cranberries.
Zoe Fassett-Manuszewski and Zoe Hochstein-Morran, 16, of Medford, Mass., allowed a reporter to weigh down the middle of their canoe as they glided across the still water, stopping on occasion to scoop nets through wispy grass and muck in search for dragonfly and pea-green damselfly larvae. They found them, along with bloodworm larvae and backswimmers, predators that attack prey as large as tadpoles and small fish by stabbing it with a tubular mouthpart. Swimming on its back and propelling itself with two arms, it appears to be a silly, harmless bug.
Students reached out and pulled their canoes together, trapping Hess in the center as she identified the creatures swimming in their trays and passed around a water spider to those who didn’t mind the tickle of its long legs as it slowly walked across their skin.
“There’s a whole long list of things we’re trying to accomplish,” Hess said. “Field experiences allow for a different kind of learning that’s intense and very memorable.”
When asked what birds they’d observed while spending two nights on Duck Island, Zoe and Zoe immediately started reciting names: herring gulls, black-backed gulls, puffins, petrels, guillemots, eider ducks, cormorants, shearwaters, gannets and eagles. Neither had bird watched before.
All of their island adventures have been likened to the experiences of Ruth Moore in her book “Speak to the Winds,” which each student read before driving to the Maine coast for the 12-day program.
At the beginning of the program, they took trips along the rocky shore and visited mud flats to learn about the ecosystems and the societal connection to the land through lobster and clam fisheries and worm digging.
“The most powerful experience I had was on Mount Desert Rock,” said Zoe Fassett-Manuszewski.
The students spent two nights on the remote, treeless island that sits approximately 25 nautical miles south the College of the Atlantic on the shore of Mount Desert Island. The students spent their time with whale experts, observing humpback whales at their feeding grounds.
“We saw so many humpbacks,” said Zoe Fassett-Manuszewski. “We went out in a little motorboat and we were like 3 feet away from them — well it felt like 3 feet, might have been 10 — but they were jumping out of the water.”
“You could see everything,” said Zoe Hochstein-Morran, paddling at the front of the boat. “You could see [from] its head all the way to the tail.”
Final projects for each teacher include multiple essays and a media project of video and photos of all their experiences at camp, from the jumping humpback whales to the water spider students were bold enough to pass around without upsetting their canoes — though both Zoes agreed that the water felt warm, and they weren’t opposed to taking a swim, even on a rainy day.
The College of the Atlantic offers two ItCH programs: “Islands through Time” and “Rivers: A Wilderness Odyssey,” an 8-day trip on the Allagash River much like Henry Thoreau’s journey through the Maine wilderness. For information about College of the Atlantic, call 288-5015 or visit www.coa.edu or email firstname.lastname@example.org.