Kids spend Earth Day at McNary Dam

Blue Mountain Wildlife director Lynn Tompkins holds up a raptor scull to a group of second graders from McNary Heights Elementary School during Earth Day field trip at the McNary Dam Wildlife Area on Thursday in Umatilla.

You can learn about the Earth right in your own back yard.

That’s the point McNary Heights teachers tried to drive home for their students on a schoolwide Earth Day field trip to McNary Lock and Dam. The facility, which is only a short drive from the elementary school, is also home to a fish hatchery, some nature trails and small parks.

Groups of students roamed the grounds, learning about various aspects of the dam from employees, park rangers and high school students who hosted informational booths.

On a small perch above the rushing water, Denise Griffith stood and talked to a group of children and parents about the fish collection process.

“We collect salmon for 24 hours, and put them in tanks,” she said. “At 7 a.m. we examine them and make sure they’re healthy.”

She pointed to a fish separator, a metal chute with bars that divide it by size, to separate bigger fish from smaller ones.

“So they don’t eat each other,” she said.

She added that someone works at the station around the clock, making sure certain types of fish are released.

“Steelhead kelt,” she said. “They’re endangered, so we let them go right away.”

A kelt is a salmonid that is returning from the sea to spawn.

Students got a chance to see all aspects of the dam: the powerhouse and water turbines, the fish hatchery and viewing area, as well as the natural areas surrounding the facility. It offered students the chance to learn not just about the dam, but about animals and plants in the area.

A park ranger demonstrated to a group of kindergarteners, using deer hide, how to tell the difference between a white-tailed deer and a mule deer.

“They’re herbivores,” he tells the rapt students. “So they won’t eat you, just plants. But you don’t want to touch them, either, because they can carry lots and lots of ticks.”

Ann Johnson, a first grade teacher whose class was learning about fish habitats, said the school comes to McNary Dam every year.

“We’re going to learn about birds of prey, and about the habitats in our own back yard,” Johnson said. “You’d be amazed at how many kids have never been down here.”

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