Each year, the Squamish River Watershed Society (SRWS) hosts an outreach event for elementary school students to provide a space for experiential learning through interactive activities and games. Typically, the focus is on the estuary, the rivers within the watershed, and the species that make this region home. This year, the focus was on salmon and how they play a vital role in ensuring the health and vitality of this incredibly diverse ecosystem. The program was held over two weeks, giving students the opportunity to participate in activities that imparted a basic understanding of the salmon life cycle, and all the ways in which salmon are an essential keystone species.
Madyson Adams, Alana Higginson from the Wetlands Education Program (WEP), and Jennifer Rogers from the Youth Program with BC Wildlife Federation helped facilitate the event, along with a number of other volunteers. The event was held in the Squamish Estuary and reached 649 children aged 8 – 12. The SRWS Education Outreach Coordinator, Rhonda O’Grady, developed four stations with the goal of relating the importance of salmon in both a cultural and ecological context. The hope was that each student would leave with an understanding of how salmon, people, forests, and animals are intrinsically connected and dependent on each other. Each station brought this connection to life through hands-on, place-based learning. Students were able to learn the traditional uses of the plants and animals in the Pacific Northwest, play a plant identification game, explore the relationship between bears and salmon, and run through the life-cycle of salmon!
Station One was ” Salmon People,” which communicated how salmon have sustained the people of Squamish, and around the world, for thousands of years. Through hands-on exploration and discovery, students learned about the roles that salmon fill within the estuary, and how the estuary has shaped the medicinal and holistic practices of the cultures within the region due to its bountiful diversity. By relating the estuary to a shopping mall, students were able to understand the vital role that the estuary played, and still plays, to the Squamish First Nations in providing them with food, clothing, and medicinal plants.
Station Two was “Salmon Forest,” which solidified the connection between the health and biodiversity of the Pacific Northwest rain forests and the salmon species that return to the estuary each year. In particular, salmon represent a vital stage in the nitrogen cycle; marine-derived nitrogen is distributed throughout the region by the eagles, bears, and wolves that eat these salmon. Through the subsequent droppings of scat and the decomposition of the carcasses, nutrients are released back into the soil, supporting a diverse array of plant species, which in turn, support a multitude of animal species.
In addition to grasping an understanding of how “trees grow on salmon,” students were given the opportunity to learn how to identify native trees and shrubs, as well as the invasive species that have infiltrated the pacific northwest and out-competed many native species.
Station Three was ” Salmon Bears,” which built upon the lessons learned at the Salmon Forest station. In this station students were introduced to the ancient relationship between salmon and bears, which has benefited, and continues to benefit, the Pacific Northwest. As mentioned, decomposing salmon carcasses provide much of the nitrogen within this region, and bears are one of the primary agents for dispersing this vital element; not only do the bears distribute the salmon far from the streams as they eat, their wastes also contain high amounts of nitrogen and other vital nutrients that contribute to healthy and productive soils.
We had the honor of hosting Station Four, “Salmon Super Heroes”. We led the students through a game that taught them the salmon life cycle. After a quick overview of the game, the students explored and played their way through the different life cycle stages, threats, and the many ways in which salmon interact with their environment. Many of the students discovered that life as a salmon isn’t easy, and many do not survive to return to their spawning beds. We were able to cement the notion of salmon being a “keystone species,” because the students were provided with a visual representation of how salmon support a multitude of species. Throughout the course of their “journey” through the game, the students encountered orca, wolves, and bears. This drove home how dependent some animals are on the salmon and their return to the spawning streams each year, and how central they are to the health of the ecosystem.
All of these stations built upon each other, and really drove home an important lesson about nature; everything is connected, and while we, as a society, continue to become more distant from nature, it is vital to remember that we are entirely dependent on the ecosystems that surround us. We must learn to share Squamish, and all aspects of nature, with wildlife for the benefit of all creatures that call this region, and this beautiful Earth, home.
It was an incredible two weeks full of laughter, full of learning, and full of connecting with nature in a personal and meaningful way. We couldn’t have asked for a better way to educate the next generation and show them why they should care about salmon and how they interact with the estuary. The WEP and Youth Program team cannot wait to be a part of the program next year! We especially want to thank the Squamish Watershed Society for hosting such an incredible learning experience, and all the awesome volunteers that donated their time to make this event such a success. Special thanks to our funders Wildlife Habitat Canada and Environment and Climate Change Canada!