September 30, 2008

Learning down by the Riverside

Confluence Watershed Festival
September 12, 2008
Columbia Bottom Conservation Area

text by Steve Schnarr; photos by Jen Courtney & Melanie Cheney

The confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers is a special place. Two of the mightiest rivers in the country join together to become one flowing force moving down to the Gulf of Mexico.

If you zoom out from a map of the area, you can see just how much natural wealth is packed in that one region. Going upstream on the Mississippi, you head almost immediately to the west, wrapping St. Charles County in a massive, flowing moat. The Illinois River, whose wetlands were once the most productive ecosystem in the area, enters just upstream, flowing through a maze of islands. The Piasa Bluffs look southward across the whole area. Large public land tracts, managed by the Corps of Engineers, Illinois and Missouri Depts. Of Natural Resources, Big Muddy National Fish and Wildlife Refuge and Missouri Dept. of Conservation, are at work restoring habitat and providing access to nature lovers.

Driving a boat or, especially, paddling a canoe across the Confluence, you feel the swirling tug of two powerful rivers as they merge into one. On one side of the turbulent line they create is the muddier Missouri River. The other side of that line is clearer, with bubbles of muddy water popping up onto its surface. But from that point on downstream, folks are more likely to refer to the Mississippi River as the “Big Muddy”.

Our clean-ups and learning festivals at the Confluence are special events, with the growing numbers of Missouri River lovers coming together to work on its last few miles. This time, the weather constantly threatened to jump in, but it held off until Sunday morning. The huge pulse of water brought by Hurricane Ike running into a western cold front didn’t run down the river until after the event.
US Fish and Wildlife Service Biologists Chris McLeland and Andy Plauk show off a shovelnosed sturgeon. photo by Jen Courtney

We started the weekend with a Friday Confluence Water Festival at the boat ramp in Columbia Bottom Conservation Area. A few schools cancelled because of the threat of storms (which skirted just north of us) but still 206 fifth and sixth graders from the neighboring Hazelwood School District came down to the river to learn about their watershed, its wildlife, river skills and safety and water issues.

Mary Kay Church from Show-Me Missouri Backcountry Horsemen discusses the "Leave No Trace" philosophy, and shows off her incredibly well behaved horse. -photo by Jen Courtney

All senses were engaged. Students touched bighead carp, shovelnosed sturgeon, aquatic turtles and even a horse. They competed at “Big Muddy Jeopardy” overlooking the river. They found their school on a watershed map and saw where their stormwater flows. They gathered around beakers of muddy water, transforming them through chemistry and filtration into clean tap water. They hunted macro-invertebrates in artificial streams, giving each stream a water quality rating. They walked down the beautiful confluence trail, pausing in silence to write down the sounds they could hear. They put on lifejackets and learned the techniques of big river paddling.

A special treat was playing the H2Orchestra, a collection of instruments that use water to create different tones, sounds and notes. This amazing interactive exhibit was donated by the River Kids, a self-motivated group of river activists from New City School, who sadly couldn't make it because of scheduling conflicts.

The exhibitors were a mix of biologists, land managers, non-profit experts and engaged citizens. They were tasked with coming up with hands-on learning experiences, and the variety of experiences they shared with the kids was inspiring. No power-points and only the briefest lectures. Engage their bodies, minds and imaginations.

Jeff Barrow from Missouri River Relief discusses where trash on the Missouri River comes from. -photo by Melanie Cheney

Fifth and sixth graders are the perfect age for this kind of education. They can’t hide their excitement with new experiences. Yet they have enough experience under their belt that they can compare different things and come up with new conclusions.

As the last busses left, exhibitors chatted with themselves, sharing ideas and mixing their energies. Once again, the opportunity to teach children on the river’s edge brought about a confluence of active people working for the future of this region in their own ways.

Special thanks to Spanish Lake Fire Dept. for bringing their fire truck onsite before the festival to fill up the H2Orchestra. Thanks to Tom and the staff at Columbia Bottom Conservation Area for their hospitality as we took over their boat ramp parking lot for a weekend. Thanks to Missouri American Water for bringing water and cups and for sponsoring the event. Thanks to Open Space Council for loaning a couple pop-ups.

Extra special thanks to Susan Raney of Hazelwood School District for pulling in some wonderful teachers and students, and Karla Wilson of Ecoworks Unlimited for arranging the fantastic array of presenters.

Here's the list of amazing organizations represented:

Collinsville Area Rec. District
St. Louis Audubon Society
Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District
Missouri American Water
Show-Me Missouri Back Country Horsemen
US Fish and Wildlife Service (Columbia National Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office)
Wild Canid Survival and Research Center
Forrest Keeling Nursery
Litzsinger Road Ecology Center
Worldways Children's Museum - the H2Orchestra
Columbia Bottom Conservation Area
MO Dept. of Conservation
US Forest Service - Mark Twain National Forest
East West Gateway Council of Governments
Grace Hill Trail Rangers
REI (Recreational Equipment Inc.)
Washington University
Cooperative Weed Management Area
Big Muddy National Fish and Wildlife Refuge
Jones-Confluence Point State Park
U.S. Geological Survey
Missouri Stream Team/Missouri Coalition for the Environment
Big Muddy Adventures
Gateway Greening, Inc.
Soil & Water Conservation District of St. Louis County
Missouri Department of Conservation
Missouri River Relief
The Confluence Greenway
Riverworks Discovery

The H2Orchestra was a special treat for the Hazelwood students. - photo by Melanie Cheney

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