It is Thursday, lunch hour, I can tell by the smell of either turkey dogs or those pre-formed chicken bites wafting down the hallway. The cubbies and lockers are barely chest high on me, but the sights and smells remind me of my days back in elementary school. There are a few differences, these kids don’t have the ‘clean the eraser’ duty if they get busted passing notes or not paying attention in class, I am not quite sure how many decades ago chalkboards became deceased, but they have long been gone. I don’t even think many of these students even have textbooks. Most everything is on these i-Pad things, and they bring home assignments in folders on tablets- without any paper!! A crazier world only Dr. Seuss and Hunter S. Thompson could conjure. I slip into the boys room to discover three little men all in one stall obviously up to no good. They quickly disperse and align themselves to the sink after I drop a baritone “What are you doin in there?”.The urinals still smell of those little pink crystal cakes and are much shorter than I recall in my youth.

Salmon Fry

Heather's Babies

We are waiting for a special visitor from the Department of Natural Resources. Someone who has had a very special connection to the small salmon fry we have swimming around in the 40 gallon aquarium in the front lobby. Today is one of my many monthly stops at Sheridan Elementary, in Petoskey, to work with the children of Mrs. Slack and Mrs. Smith’s PALS kids. They are fifth graders, gifted and motivated, and are an annual part of the Salmon in the Classroom that we have tailored a very nice program that other students look forward to every year. Today we shall be learning about the fish biology with Heather Seites-Hettinger from the Central Lake Michigan Fisheries Management Team. Fish dissection- I recall dissecting a pig in AP Biology, but these kids are only fifth graders, not high school. Doesn’t matter, they love it, and we want them to love it.
Heather discusses the external features of the fish with diagrams every student has. We talk about their fins, vision, the aero-dynamic structure that make salmon and trout so perfectly suited for the rivers and the big lake. We often play a game-show like atmosphere bouncing questions off one another and fielding questions from the kids at the same time.

Heather Talks external Biology

Heather Talks external Biology

Then Heather talks about the difference between the Coho Salmon that we are about to dissect versus the Chinook Salmon that are in the aquarium, which are about the same size , but the Coho are much older and would have been released soon if they didn’t die of natural causes the night before over at the Platte River Hatchery. This stuff still amazes me.
Now we get to open our little foil envelopes and begin to make our first incision. You would be surprised, in the few years we have been doing this, only one child had to be excused because they couldn’t either bear to cut into a fish or they just couldn’t handle the massacre. This was the year. For the most part, they really get into it. Heather and I have to help with the first incision and cut up the belly to the gills and open the fish up, but most usually dive right in up to their elbows. We look for the obvious, air bladder, liver, heart, intestine, find out what they have been eating and move up to the head. We learn new words that I encourage them to bring up at the family dinner discussion- not like that concept still exists today- words like operculum and conus arteriosis. We have a great time with learning the difference between how a salmons biology is so perfectly made for a life in the river and later in life in the big lake.
I just received the spring newsletter from the MDNR and was very excited to see a lot of what the Miller Van Winkle Chapter of Trout Unlimited does with the help of the DNR and the Conservation Resource Alliance.
Central Lake Michigan Management Unit
Look for a post next month when we visit the river and have a great time turning over rocks to see what bugs crawl around our stream beds. Kids love bugs too!