Now they are collaborating with area schools and taking students on field trips to learn from the river first hand. David Sommerstein tagged along with a group of seventh graders from Thousand Islands middle school and has this report.
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Save the River is based in Clayton, in the heart of the Thousand Islands, and traces its roots back to the 1970s theatrical Yippie icon Abbie Hoffman, one of the Chicago Seven protesters put on trial for disrupting the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. Hoffman was underground in the islands, with an assumed name, when Save the River was born.
Now the group is mainstream, training a new generation to protect the river from pollution, invasive species, and the effects of commercial navigation.
In a clearing at Minna Anthony Nature Center on Wellesley Island, Catherine’s sitting cross-legged, sketching a still life. "I’m looking at that tree right there," she said. "It’s kinda interesting."
The sun sprinkles down. Birds chirp. Catherine and her friends, Danielle and Taylor, live on or near the St. Lawrence River. "I go fishing, swimming, and tubing on it. I also go fishing, swimming, diving as well. Boat and jump in the river," they said.
They admit they rarely listen and look carefully at the river, its wildlife, its story.
That’s what this field trip’s all about, a reintroduction to what’s in their own backyard, one of North America’s great rivers and one that’s also been blasted and dredged to make room for big ships.
"At some point in the history it got engineered and moved, so that was something I didn’t know," one student said. "I learned that they’ve got a special spot for squeaky birds that are endangered," said another.
Those “squeaky birds” are the endangered common tern and the students get to peek at their nests aboard a tour boat.
[students getting on boat. One says, “eww, we have to wear life jackets.]
Students clamber on and strap on what they deem very dorky orange life jackets, and we’re off.
"Alright you guys, raise your hand if you can hear me," said Stephanie Weiss, assistant director of Save the River as she corrals the attention of a boatload of seventh graders. "I need you guys to keep your eyes out and look for wildlife as we go. The closer we get to the shoreline, the more we’ll see."
A few years ago, Save the River started developing curricula with area science teachers, about the St. Lawrence River’s ecosystem, about the zebra mussel and other invasive species. Weiss said the next logical step was the field trip.
"The bottom line is its our job to protect the St. Lawrence River, and we can’t do that if people don’t understand and care about the river, and so this is our way of making sure that the kids not just learn about the science of the river, but that they really understand, and that there’s something that they can actually do about it," Weiss said.
"Oh, there’s a heron! Right there!" Christine and Jillian pop out their seats as we hug the shoreline of Murray Island. They spot an osprey nest perched on a telephone pole. "It’s behind that tree. It’s huge! It looks really steep, though."
The girls said it matters to get to know the wildlife on their river: "It’s something that’s always gonna be there, and where we live. So we can know what’s around and stuff."
Now, these are middle schoolers. So when someone on the shoreline inexplicably moons – yes, moons – the boat, it’s a moment of mayhem. And for a group of slumping boys in the back, that’s the highlight.
"Kinda lame, yeah, it is," one student said. "I dunno, hiked a trail, got mooned by some guy. We do this all the time, though. This is where we live, not anything special, though."
Still, even those boys end up leaning out to look for mink or perch or kingfishers. One girl spies something in binoculars, then sighs, “oh, it’s just a rock.”
Science teacher Mary Bowman says this up close experience gives what students learn in the classroom real meaning. "I think it will make them more respectful and aware of how blessed they truly are to be here and they want to keep it sound," Bowman said.
Field trips are few and far between at many schools these days. Save the River’s grant and foundation support helps pay for the buses and lunches.
The hope is students like Marissa, Ally, and Heather will carry the lessons they learn here to their families and everyday lives. "To preserve the natural world and Earth, the habitat, cause you don’t want too much pollution in the water. Water keeps us alive," they said.
And in doing so, become the next generation of protectors of the St. Lawrence River.