Salmon Camp 2006

One of our recent programs is Salmon Camp.

Synergia is situated geographically in the heart of the Yuba Watershed, which feeds the Sacramento River system. The Sacramento River system still has one of the healthiest Chinook Salmon runs on the west coast. Living near the Yuba River, we are extremely fortunate to have this biological wonder in our backyard where we can learn from it, and work with community leaders such as the South Yuba River Citizen´s League (SYRCL) to protect it. In Fall 2006 Synergia launched its most ambitious Salmon Camp to date, where school classes participated hands-on in the field and learned about the Salmon, and most importantly, learned about interdependence and stewardship through the study of this remarkable creature and its habitat.

Salmon Camp 2006

In October 2006, Synergia launched Yuba Salmon Camp, on the banks of the main stem of the Yuba River. For nine days and nights we camped beside the river, alongside migrating and spawning Chinook salmon, to learn about the salmon and the river, both past and present. Synergia collaborated on this program with SYRCL, the South Yuba River Citizen’s League. SYRCL started their Salmon Tours for the community and local school classes at our camp — studying maps, posters and classroom materials. SYRCL river scientists and biologists gave talks to participants from both groups. According to the students, Salmon Camp was interesting, exhilarating, full, concentrated…..and very fun.

What we set out to do.

One of the main objectives of Salmon Camp was to demonstrate an experiential approach to education that covers many study and topic areas through the examination of a single species: Chinook salmon in the Yuba watershed. The approach is place-based, developmentally appropriate, “real-life” out-of-classroom learning. In fact, we started with just one question:

What is a Salmon?

John Muir wisely and famously noted, “When we try to pick out anything by itself we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the Universe”. To approach education from this perspective, one needs an entry point – one invisible cord. For this program the starting place is salmon. From there, the entire universe opens up in which learning is a movement from one connected thread to the next, weaving a web with students and teachers in the center.

By starting with salmon, the “thousand invisible cords” are made visible. The interconnectedness and diversity of life is seen, felt and experienced as fact, as “what is”. When life is seen as a whole, then the essential nature and role of every part is seen. Systems not only start to make sense, but are understood in relationship to everything else.

What Did We Do?

Every autumn, Chinook salmon return to the streams of their birth to spawn, and to die. The Yuba River is home to one of the last remaining Fall Chinook Salmon runs in Northern California. Starting in late September the salmon start to arrive in the Yuba River. In mid October, Synergia set up a primitive camp on public lands. Under a giant canopy, we set up an outdoor classroom and kitchen, tents to sleep in and a campfire to warm ourselves at night. Then the students arrived.

The first group was from the Twin Ridges Homestudy Program. This group of fifteen students ranged in age from 8 to 13. Some of them knew each other, others were new to the group. They came from Nevada, Sierra and Yuba Counties.

For our two and a half days together, we explored the relationships that involve salmon. We started, as we always do, with building friendship and trust within the group. In fact, we were a little community for a time, part of several larger communities, and in order to function well as a group, we needed to feel our sense of belonging. This is accomplished first through cooperative games, in which certain salmon and river facts are incorporated, and engaging “name games” in which we learn more than just each other’s names. As simple as this sounds (and it is simple) this time spent in establishing a sense of belonging is critical to the learning process, and to our ability to explore the river ecosystem safely and well.

Lunchtime was next, and this was an integral part of introducing concepts of sustainable living, and healthy choices.

The students were asked to bring their own lunch for the first day. Sitting in a circle, before anyone started eating, we asked the group to look at all the items in their lunches. We then asked the question, “Who has something in their lunch that traveled a long way before you bought it?” Several items were proffered. “Who has the item that traveled the farthest?”
One student held up his hand.
“I think I do,” he said.
“What is it?”
“It’s an orange.”
“Where did it come from?”
“From Australia.”

I had an orange in my lunch, too. Mine happened to be grown near Marysville, CA, a citrus producing region a few miles from where we sat. After a little more sharing (I sheepishly admitted that I had cookies from France) we settled in to actually eating our lunches, and a lively discussion followed about eating locally grown food: about the Native people who, for centuries, lived off of the salmon who swam up the very river we were sitting beside; about foods grown organically and what that meant; about packaging and health, and on and on. Many in the group had something to contribute – several of the students grew gardens with their families and ate so “locally” that the distance the foods traveled between the soil and the plate was measured in feet. Some had almost an entire lunch of processed, pre-packaged foods. This was no lecture on food sustainability – this was an engaging conversation, with contributions from all participants. We ended by telling everyone that at this camp, we would be eating as locally grown, organically grown, and sustainably as we possibly could. The meals were planned, and the food purchased, with those criteria.

Then, off for an afternoon of exploring the riparian habitat. Our camp was a short walk from what we called the “Hammon backwater” – a place where beaver dams had created a large pool. Here young spring-run salmon and other fish species grow in a more protected environment before starting life in the river, or the journey to the ocean. Students explored beaver habitat and evidence of recent activity; they used clear bottomed buckets to peer into the underwater world of micro-invertebrates, catching a few (temporarily) for all to observe. We trekked into the jungle-like willows of the deep backwater – grateful for a warm Indian Summer day.

That night, after a delicious dinner of locally grown vegetables and rice (and not quite as locally grown beans), we sat around the campfire and listened to stories of Native people of the Pacific Northwest during the time of great fall salmon gatherings. Sitting beside the river, all together, it was easy to imagine what life then might have been like – each clan member, from youngest to eldest, with an important job to do, harvesting and preserving the salmon that would sustain whole tribes throughout the winter. Through story and myth, we learned of their spiritual relationship with the salmon, the river, and with the earth.

After a night spent beside the river, we awoke early and excited – ready to paddle 12 miles down the river in rafts and canoes to watch the salmon as they worked their way upstream to spawn. Even though some of the best “redds” or nests, were right near our camp, and close to shore for excellent observation, it was exciting to be on the river and to see these powerful and massive ocean fish swim upstream, their backs exposed above the surface of the water.

We stopped at Daguerre Point Dam, where most of the salmon are also stopped, to look at the (ineffective) fish ladder, and learn of the dam’s history, as well as that of other dams in California and beyond, that are making the survival of the salmon a questionable proposition. After Salmon Camp, the students wrote letters expressing their concern.

A day spent on the river is a day well spent. Students learned teamwork while paddling the rafts and canoes, observed many different bird species, including Great Blue Herons and Bald Eagles, and experienced firsthand what a river ecosystem is, its complexity – and, despite severe human impacts — its beauty.

After another delicious dinner, we sat around the campfire and shared stories and impressions of our day on the river.

Three main activities occupied us the next day before students and teacher packed up and headed home. The first was a challenging and engaging group problem solving game that is based on concepts of sustainable harvest of ocean fish. The second was a solo journaling time where each student found their own private and special place along the river, to sit quietly, to write and draw, to contemplate, and to find their own way to listen to and speak to Nature. Developing or reawakening a relationship with Nature is probably the single most important aspect of Salmon Camp. It is also the most challenging to write about, simply because it is in the realm of the sacred, the profound, and the unnamable. It is personal, and it is part of who we are. It can’t be “taught”, it can only be lived, but it has so much to do with that sense of belonging that we spoke of at the beginning. If you know you belong, if you are seated firmly in the Life in and around you, then you are also in a position to know yourself, and how you fit into the world beyond your own concerns.

The third activity on Day 3 was to learn how to monitor the river water. SYRCL has one of the most comprehensive water monitoring programs in the country. They outfitted us with kits so that we, too, could monitor this site and learn more about what water is, what fish need, and what balance of molecular components are needed for a healthy river eco-system. We were fortunate to have people join our group who were already experienced water monitors in SYRCL’s volunteer program.
A closing circle to say goodbye, and give thanks, and it was time to paddle back across the river and back to regular lives, bringing the river’s lessons along. The Synergia team was ready to welcome the next group: the 5th/6th grade class of the Sierra Montessori Academy.

With this group we followed a similar program, though one of the ways that learning happens at Synergia programs has as much to do with the students as with the curriculum. We may plan what we think is a great activity or lesson, but if we see that the group needs something different, or needs something else first, we are quick to re-group and reconfigure. This group of students did not come with their teacher, but came instead with six parent chaperone/participants. This created a multi-generational aspect to the experience that added a rich dimension.

The other difference was that we had the opportunity to continue the study in the classroom with this group of students. For two days in the week after camp, we continued to learn both in and out of the classroom. This included holding a water monitoring session on Wolf Creek, which runs right through the school property. The students collected water samples and learned how to test them for various components. They then learned how to interpret the data so that the information they collected could be understood in terms of the health of their creek, which in turn could be used to inform decisions and actions. Students learned that information alone is not enough – one needs to know what information means in order to respond appropriately.

Looking Back

In closing, we return for a moment to John Muir’s statement. If one of the cords that connects everything to everything else in the Universe is a human being, then education of this kind may very well serve to keep those invisible cords strong and thriving. As young people learn about the world they are part of, a sense of responsibility for that world can emerge. Appreciation and understanding are awakened and ignited, teachers and students have learned together, and one invisible cord is made visible.