Teens get new appreciation for homeland
The Smith River runs deep with ecological importance, which can be easily overlooked when river trips are often sought to simply cool down with a dip.
Youth Leadership Academy participants enjoy their day in the sun on the South Fork of the Smith River on Thursday. Courtesy of Ron Gastineau
This week almost 60 Del Norte teens took part in an “immersion camp” that included time at Rock Creek Ranch on the river’s South Fork. A day of snorkeling, hiking and swimming emphasized the Smith’s importance as a salmonid refuge and encouraged kids to embrace the river basin in “their backyard.”
“This is their watershed. This is their backyard, and some of them haven’t even been up here,” said the camp’s resident river scientist, Katrina “Fluvial Cat” Schneider, who was one of the founding organizers of the immersion camp started seven years ago. “We travel from all over the place to be here, and for the kids, it’s right here. We want them to be invested in their area.”
Dozens of teens sporting wetsuits first listened to why the Smith is unique while standing upon the foundation of a house built in the 1930s too close to the river. A 1955 flood destroyed the house.
Camp staff member Joél Benegar explained how rain and snowmelt cause floods, pushing water through the river to the ocean, and it happens fast, because “there’s nothing upstream to capture it. There are no dams, and that’s why you have amazing things here like salmon,” she said.
“It’s not that all dams are wrong,” Schneider told the group. “We couldn’t live in parts of California without some dams.”
The Smith, however, is a “refuge habitat” for salmonids that is “hugely important for a species that many of us care a lot about,” Schneider said.
After divvying up flippers, goggles and snorkels, it was time to hit the water and learn how to dive deep and look under rock shelves for fish.
“Butts up! Just like duck!” yelled camp leader Sean “Captain Lonestar” Keller, showing the teens how to dive. The group learned how the river functions and how to navigate it.
Overcoming a healthy fear of the river was the first step for many
Sammy Hernandez, 19, was a participant in the immersion camp for its first two years, and for the last five years he has worked as a staff member at the camp, offering his lifeguard expertise.
“It’s my high point of the summer,” Hernandez said, standing vigilantly on shore as lifeguard while snorkelers frolicked about.
The group also searched for signs of life on the river, finding juvenile salmon, snakes, caddisflies, and evidence of river otters.
Ajouna Boulby, 17, found a Western Garter snake in the river, which she wasn’t scared to hold after growing up with her uncle’s boa constrictor that often escaped its cage.
Hiking along the banks of the Smith offered an opportunity to identify darlingtonia. The young people put on their “scientist hats” and identified areas marked from massive landslides and the difference between bedrock and sedimentary rocks.
Gary Reedy, who helped write the original grant for the camp, picked up a salmon skull, and explained the fish’s important role in the nutrient cycle.
“Everything flows downstream, except salmon and steelhead that come upstream,” Reedy said, adding that when the salmon die after spawning they bring important ocean nutrients inland.
Camp staffers said conversations with Del Norte youth carry a common motif of not liking Crescent City and wanting to move away — ASAP. A goal of the camp is to get the local youth to appreciate what Del Norte has to offer.
“I’ve been on rivers in the South Pacific, Australia, all over the world and the Smith takes the cake,” said camp leader Baron “Three Ring” Coenen. Similar testimony to Del Norte’s natural beauty came from other camp staffers.
She hopes that the camp opens young people’s eyes to the job opportunities that are connected to Del Norte’s outdoors, because ultimately they are the “stewards of this place,” she said.
The river day was one of the last activities for the three-week Youth Leadership Academy, which encouraged young people to become leaders in their community and leaders in their own lives.
Building a sense of Smith River stewardship for the young people fell right in line with the YLA goal of community involvement.
The YLA kicked off with leadership and team-building activities in the first week. In the second week, participants practiced what they learned through community service projects that included repairing and cleaning up community gardens, landscaping at the senior center, and clearing trails and cleaning campsites at the Mill Creek Campground.
Besides the visit to Rock Creek Ranch, the third week also featured a ropes course in the redwoods and a visit to Humbolt State University.
Another youth program, Youth News Network, has been a part of YLA, but its ultimate goal is to create news stories about different opportunities available to Del Norte youth.
Rock Creek Ranch is owned by the Smith River Alliance, which helped write the original grant for the immersion camp.
The California Endowment through the Building Healthy Communities initiative funded the majority of YLA, along with contributions from Rural Human Services, Wild Rivers Community Foundation, Del Norte County, Americorps and Save the Redwoods League.