The river, and kids’ enthusiasm, flow freely at field day

Teens and preteens splashed through the puddles along the Thornton River on a Tuesday late last month for RappFLOW’s annual field day, learning how and why the county’s water resources should be protected and preserved.

Fortunately, the heavy rain held off until late afternoon, and the gray mist that preceded the night’s five-inch downpour did nothing to dampen interest. In fact, it seemed to wet the enthusiasm of both kids and presenters. The weather played into lesson plans, giving the young people from Hearthstone, Belle Meade, Wakefield Country Day, Mountain Laurel Montessori and Rappahannock elementary and high schools a chance to see the effectiveness of the rain garden and streambank buffers installed by the Rappahannock Friends and Lovers of Our Watershed (RappFLOW) on the grounds of Cliff Miller’s property in Sperryville.

RappFLOW founder Beverly Hunter helps conservation-minded kids take the wider view (in this case via satellite photography of the Thornton River and Sperryville Schoolhouse) at RappFLOW's Sept. 29 field day.Courtesy photo
RappFLOW founder Beverly Hunter helps conservation-minded kids take the wider view (in this case via satellite photography of the Thornton River and Sperryville Schoolhouse) at RappFLOW’s Sept. 29 field day.

Bev Hunter and Mark Malik of RappFLOW sent kids out to pinpoint locations from watershed maps of the site and then report back on where they went and what they found in the way of environmental indicators. “Ground truthing,” Hunter called the exercise.

Rachel Bynum of Waterpenny Farm, master naturalist Bill Nenninger and Carolyn Thornton, who with Donna Marquisee organized RappFLOW’s field day, led youngsters into the river to gather macro-invertebrates that give evidence of a waterway’s health. “You want to wade your stream three times a year, lift rocks and see what’s there,” Bynum advised. “You know what you should find if your stream is healthy. Be a monitor. ”

As for the Thornton River, “we’re doing well here,” Bynum concluded. “This river gets a clean bill of health.”

George Gaines of Trout Unlimited drove out from D.C. to demonstrate fly fishing and talk about protection of rivers and streams. Bob Hearle from Culpeper Soil and Water Conservation District demonstrated chemical testing. The show-and-tell by Carolyn Sedgwick from the Piedmont Environmental Council explained rainwater flow and how urban development and rural enterprises impact it.

Kids line up to see the macroinvertebrates that help determine a stream's health.Courtesy photo
Kids line up to see the macroinvertebrates that help determine a stream’s health.

Kyle Dingus of the Virginia Department of Forestry addressed how forest and ground covers help conserve the watershed. Rappahannock’s streams arise in Shenandoah National Park, free from agricultural and road runoff, and they empty into the Rappahannock River, which provides the drinking water for three counties and the city of Fredericksburg. “Less pollution means less treatment is required,” Dingus noted, pointing out that protecting the Rappahannock River also means protecting the Chesapeake Bay.

The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s station starring turtles and salamanders was a favorite on the field day’s educational circuit. Wood turtles, “the ATVs of the turtle world” that cross the valleys and ridges between streams, are now “threatened” and just one step from “endangered.” Arms flew up when Charlotte Lorick and Ellery Ruther asked for stories of turtle encounters, and every kid wanted to touch the salamanders that are one of the best warning systems of stream endangerment. Seventeen percent of the world’s salamander population lives in the Appalachian mountain ranges, where wet weather and an abundance of streams create good habitat. Because chemicals and pollutants pass through the permeable skin of these amphibians, a decline in their numbers indicates water pollution, the biologists explained.

While the students were assessing the state of waterways, the presenters were assessing the state of the students who will be the future stewards for Rappahannock’s water resources. “There’s so much interest and the most enthusiasm I’ve seen yet,” said the forestry department’s Dingus.

“And a lot of knowledge!” added Lorick. “These young people knew the answers to almost every one of our questions. “

If you have questions on what you can do to protect and preserve Rappahannock’s water resources, RappFLOW has answers. For more information or to join the conservation group, visit rappflow.org.

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