Seven 2021 Floating Classroom trips on the Hiawatha Paddleboat offer environmental studies to 407 people
Reflecting on her time aboard the Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association’s Aug. 3, 2021, Floating Classroom, 12-year-old Cerafina McKee appreciated the hands-on experience aboard the Hiawatha Paddleboat in Williamsport.
“I really liked looking down into the water from the boat and thinking about what was down there besides fish,” she said. “I also liked touching the rattlesnake and then afterwards showing all my friends the hand I used to touch it. It all really inspired me to be more aware of pollution and the environment.”
Her sentiment was the goal of this year’s slate of classes – seven Floating Classroom sessions attended by a total of 407 people with a focus of inspiring youngsters and their families by connecting them with the species that depend on our river’s resources and some of the history that helped shape the communities that call the river valley home.
It all kicked off on Tuesday, July 6, with a cruise focused on macroinvertebrates featuring Julie Vastine and the Dickinson College’s ALLARM (Alliance for Aquatic Resource Management) with six stations covering everything from macroinvertebrate identification and using microscopes to some of the major threats these important creatures face.
“We really enjoyed being on the Hiawatha,” relayed Sharon Wagner, adding that her son, Keegan, “loved looking at all the macroinvertebrates in the microscope as well as seeing live crayfish.”
The second cruise of the season featured snake expert Karl Miller, of Liberty, and musician KJ Reimensnyder-Wagner offering an overview of snakes and environmentally focused songs on Aug. 3. Miller brought a live rattlesnake, copperhead and garter snake, using them to engage the audience and teach snake safety and discuss some of the issues facing these species.
“We came away from the cruise with a better understanding of snakes and why they should not be overhunted and why people should not kill them for no reason,” said Candace Mosteller, of Middleburg. “We also learned more about the importance of their habitats and why we should protect those habitats.”
The Aug. 10 Floating Classroom focused on common fish species found in our watershed. It included two presentations – an upper-level look at warmer water species via taxidermy mounts and discussion led by Montour Preserve naturalist Jon Beam, and a cold-water focus via Fish and Boat Commission Waterway Conservation Officer Darrell Miller on the lower level of the Hiawatha.
“I boarded the Hiawatha knowing very little about many of the fish species in our area, and left knowing quite a bit,” said Caterina Zorn, of Lewisburg.
“I was surprised to learn that the Fish and Boat Commission stocks five million fish each year,” said Lee Bzdil, of Lewisburg. “It was helpful to learn to tell the difference between small- and largemouth bass.”
The Aug. 17 Floating Classroom focused on some of the history of the river, featuring historian John Moore as "Susquehanna Jack" and musician Gary Gyekis. The session focused on telling the story of people who, over the course of time, have depended on the river, from native Americans to the earliest settlers, to those who mined along it banks, those who fished it, used it for transportation and developed a sense of community due to its resources.
“We appreciated that one presentation was musical and the other was focused more on storytelling,” said Angela Troutman, of Northumberland. “It was neat to hear about details on the local native Americans and how their lives revolved around the river and events like a circus train wreck.”
The Sept. 7 Floating Classroom featured hellbender researcher Dr. Peter Petokas, Lycoming County Water Specialist Carey Entz, herpetologist Devin Welch and student assistant Lily Saar as they shared information about a wide variety of amphibians that can be found in our watersheds, the differences between them and reptiles and overall helped raise awareness about species of concern, such as the Eastern hellbender.
“Having experts and biology students teach was awesome – the animals were fun, too,” said Meg Jenkins, of Williamsport. “I was a wildlife biology major and I think I had more fun than the kids!”
Raptors found along the river was the focus of the Sept. 21 Floating Classroom. Falconer Mike Dupuy offered programming on the upper level of the Hiawatha, focusing mainly on hawk and owl species using a few live birds. Meanwhile, on the lower level, Riverkeeper John Zaktansky presented information on bald eagles and ospreys. Both sessions focused on identification and various trends and behaviors, but also on the conservation of our raptors, including the inspiring comeback story of the bald eagle and osprey.
“We learned a lot about conservation and general information about birds of prey,” said Stacey Eicher, of Mifflinburg. “Now my kids want an owl.”
“I liked that I could hold the birds,” said 14-year-old Skylar Wagner. “It was also neat to learn identification between ospreys and eagles.”
The final session of the season included volunteers from the Lycoming Audubon Society, with a presentation downstairs on common bird species found in more aquatic habitats and an observation deck upstairs with binoculars as participants tried to find and identify as many species as they could.
“We very much liked the audience participation in the presentation and also learning how to properly use binoculars,” said Jeesa McCarty, a teacher with Susquehanna Prep School, which brought a number of fifth and sixth-grade students.
“The instructional section was very informative. The real-time observation on the top level was also fun and educational,” said Kelly Caudle, of Winfield. “Having access to members of the Audubon society was a great resource.”
In addition to the environmental instruction on each cruise, the locally based Otto's Bookstore provided a selection of age and theme-appropriate books and other items for families to check out.
The Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association is looking ahead to a new slate of topics and sessions for the summer of 2022. Watch for updates at MiddleSusquehannaRiverkeeper.org/floating-classroom.html
John Zaktansky is an award-winning journalist and avid promoter of the outdoors who loves camping, kayaking, fishing and hunting with the family.