Get to Know Oregon Salmon Watch Program

Salmon Watch
by Grant McOmie – October 17th, 2014

Many Oregon streams – like Eagle Creek in the Columbia River Gorge – show that summer has past and now, it is fall! The small creek near Bonneville dam is often choked with chinook and coho salmon, and it is a prime site to watch the fish.

The Salmon River near Welches, Oregon also offers a fine spot for a Salmon Watch. Here, the chinook salmon are hard to miss – no longer gleaming silver, the big fish are mottled black and gray. They started life right here four years ago and that is a profound lesson not lost on Kirk Ordway’s 6th grade class. “I have been fortunate to join the Salmon Watch program for the past four years and it’s huge with the kids; getting them out here and experience nature one on one,” said Ordway. In fact, his group of youngsters are a part of 1200 Portland area students – ranging from middle school through high school experience a Salmon Watch this fall thanks to the not for profit, Portland-based “World Salmon Council.”

Ordway’s watch actually began in his science class at Mt Tabor Middle School – where the salmon watch program provides the curriculum, supplies – plus the cost of the field trip and even pay for a substitute teacher, so Ordway is able to join his students in the field when the salmon watch field day arrives.

In the field, volunteer teacher Janet Davis (one of four volunteers assigned to each class) guided the young newcomers by teaching them scientific methods to measure the environment. Davis was retired when she learned that the Salmon Watch program needed volunteers, so she stepped up to lead her life in a new direction. “Students must be able to think systematically rather than ‘Oh, I was told this, therefore it must be true.’ They need a way to verify what they see and hear in a systematic way. Plus, I love the outdoors and wanted to be a part of it.”

Since the Salmon Watch program began more than 20 years ago, over 60,000 Oregon students have learned what salmon need to thrive, noted Alyssa Thornburg. Thornburg is the Salmon Watch Program Manager and added that not surprisingly, it’s what people need, too: cold, clean water. “Salmon are so deeply characteristic of our region and yet kids grow up these days not knowing that we live so close to magnificent streams, and that these salmon swim through here every season of the year. It’s an important heritage that youngsters need to know so they can protect it.”

Mt Tabor Middle School student, Austin Larsen, said that a day streamside observing and learning takes hold in a way the classroom can’t. “We tested water quality and we ran some transect lines and quadrant lines in the forest to survey the vegetation. I have learned that salmon need specific conditions to live in, so the water needs to be a perfect range of temperatures or they won’t survive. Well, I want to survive too, so it’s important to know this information.”

Kirk Ordway said that sort of understanding for his students – or anyone – who calls Oregon their home. “How often can you go around the city and see salmon running up a stream? You can’t. How often can you walk through an old growth forest – you can’t! So the chance for us to come here – to an old growth forest area along the Salmon River and bear witness to nature and its life cycles – it’s a remarkable moment and you can’t beat that.”

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