By Steve Eisenhauer
Regional Director of Stewardship and Land Protection
Natural Lands Trust
Before the kids follow my request to step out of the kayaks into knee-deep water, one or two often ask the same questions: Are there any alligators in here? Electric eels? How about sharks? My answer includes a comment about how the snapping turtles here aren’t hungry now, eliciting alarmed looks. A reassuring smile sets them at ease.
Most of our water trips with groups of first-time kayakers don’t travel far—maybe a hundred yards or so. The first lesson after learning a few paddle strokes is to tip over, swamping the kayak. Their fear of tipping often then turns to a willingness to get wet this way again and again.
The second lesson is finding aquatic creatures with their hands by digging in the sandy lake bottom. Handfuls of sand and gravel from Millville’s Union Lake may contain a half dozen or more Asiatic clams ranging from pea-size to an inch or so. There must be millions, perhaps billons, of these clams in the 950-acre lake. Members of the local sailing club say they first noticed the clams a couple decades ago when the water seemed to get clearer. Clams and mussels clarify water by siphoning it through their system in search of food particles, such as algae.
The story of these clams – considered by many scientists a nasty invasive in the U.S. – is complex, but they certainly serve as a readily-available “hook” catching the attention of kids and adults. For the hundreds of students I take wading, canoeing, and kayaking each year, this ubiquitous bivalve makes the lake or river bottom come alive, and students often soon start looking around more closely and discovering other complex natural wonders. Fears of snapping turtles, snakes and leeches are overcome by the excitement of discovery. Bigger native mussels – often 4 inches long or more – are sometimes the next discovery, which invariably brings the next question: Can we eat them? The answer is yes, they’re edible and reportedly quite tasty, but also no, it’s illegal to harvest clams and mussels in freshwater.
In the spring and summer of 2011, Natural Lands Trust led 32 New Jersey field trips involving 13 schools and camp groups. All of these trips visited local waterways, and most involved students getting wet up to their knees or – especially on kayak trips – head to toe. Luckily, in Cumberland County where most of the trips occur, the water quality is usually high enough to permit full submersion. One lesson continually emphasized is how water quality determines the species range of aquatic creatures like fish and mussels. A seining net is part of nearly every field trip. Aquatic life caught are identified by species, and native vs. non-native species provide an ongoing topic for discussion. On one field trip in Lawrence Township, the students visit three lakes on the same creek. They catch aquatic life with the net in each lake and see how the species mix changes as water quality improves in the more upstream lakes furthest from agricultural runoff.
Through Dodge’s funding, Natural Lands Trust initiated this outreach program a decade ago and has been working to make improvements ever since. By September, 800 students, campers, parents and teachers had participated in the 2011 program. Perhaps the most interesting expansion for this year has been with the mid-summer program. In July and August, 120 campers and counselors from Millville’s Camp Cedar Knoll participated in 8 kayak and canoe day trips to Union Lake and the Maurice River. And 35 summer program campers from Millville’s Lakeside School and the Port Norris Middle School visited Union Lake and Strathmere’s Corson Inlet State Park. Kayaks, seining, getting wet and handling wildlife were included in all field trip activities.
Largemouth and smallmouth bass, bluegill and red-bellied sunfish, chain pickerel, eastern mudminnows, kingfish, Atlantic silversides, striped killifish, stinkpot turtles: these are some of the aquatic creatures caught and released by students this summer. But the Asiatic clams seemed to be the most mesmerizing to many students. Perhaps it was because they could catch so many with their bare hands. Perhaps it was the range of sizes: whole families in one handful. Close-up, they look a bit like gold nuggets, and the question always comes up: Are there pearls inside? Perhaps it is their life story; they have a foot that moves them, are both male and female in the same clam and, if you place them in submerged sand and wait a few minutes, they’ll wiggle out of sight. Are they really a nasty invasive like the zebra mussel that is destroying fish populations in the Great Lakes, or are they something more benign that will eventually fit in with Union Lake’s other aquatic life? Stay tuned. In a few years, after a thousand more students handle these little bivalves and keep forcing me to learn more about them, we may have the answer to this question.
images courtesy Natural Lands Trust