Eastern York students learn hands-on in canoes

David Weissman

Eastern York High School marine biology instructor Daphne Leeder said Thursday morning's field trip was about teaching her students an appreciation for how "everything in nature is connected" and "just being outside."

Eastern High School students take part in Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Sesquehanna Watershed Education Program at Muddy Run Reservoir in Holtwood, Thursday, April 14, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

"Some of these students are rarely outdoors," Leeder said.

Her students took canoes out onto the waters of Muddy Run Creek in Lower Chanceford Township as part of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's long-running Susquehanna Watershed Education Program, which takes a hands-on approach to informing them on the importance of clean water.

Eastern High School students Paige Whitten, 18, left, and Matthew Schardt, 19, look at live specimens collected from the reservoir water as they take part in Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Sesquehanna Watershed Education Program at Muddy Run Reservoir in Holtwood, Thursday, April 14, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The foundation led a total of 26 schools in 14 counties in the program this spring, according to spokesman BJ Small.

Mason Millar, a 16-year-old sophomore, said he had been looking forward to the trip, which was reinforcing the class' focus on water-quality issues.

"We get a lot of resources from our rivers," Mason said, adding that he enjoyed watching some of his classmates canoe for the first time.

On the water: Tom Parke, one of the foundation's educators, led a quick instructional demo for the 23 students, who were split into rowing teams of three. The "captain" in the back of the canoe was responsible for steering, while the "engine" in the front and "meatball" in the middle learned forward and backward strokes.

Each canoe had a nickname, with students in the appropriately named "Arrgh!" suffering through some early steering frustrations, while students in "Flipper" managed to stay upright throughout the day.

Sweatshirts and pants were prevalent during the chilly morning as students rowed about a half mile to and from shore during the four-and-a half-hour program.

Out on the water, Parke and fellow educator Emily Thorpe discussed the impact of different plants on water quality and allowed students to use tools to measure the depth and oxygen levels.

Later, students got out of their canoes and used nets, colander-like tools and their hands to capture various macroinvertebrates — animals without a backbone that can be seen by the naked eye — and classified each to determine the water's quality.

The students caught crayfish, leeches, snails and one even snatched a log perch with his bare hands.

Parke said the variety indicated a good diversity but warned students that a "good" rating doesn't mean the stream is not impaired at all.

"What we're doing on land, that's what is impacting our water," Parke said to the class.

Susquehanna: Mason, who caught a crayfish, said Muddy Run Creek seemed healthy, but what he's learned in class make him concerned for the Susquehanna River.

Scientists have found the river is home to numerous diseased smallmouth bass, which are dying or born with birth defects such as deformed genitals.

Chesapeake Bay Foundation urges action on Susquehanna

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has urged the state Department of Environmental Protection in recent years to recommend an impairment designation, which would open up resources and require a set plan to improve the river's health.

Leeder, who's been bringing her classes on this trip for more than 20 years, said the hands-on learning helped reinforce these water-quality issues better than anything that could be taught in a classroom.

"We talk about the watersheds, various impacts and water quality," she said. "Now they get to actually see it."

— Reach David Weissman at