A group of 32 eighth-grade students from Chattanooga’s Normal Park School (Upper Campus) arrived by tour bus for a snorkeling adventure to highlight the continued growth and expansion of the partnered project “Cherokee Forest Outdoors.”
The RC&D is providing scholarship funds for the program, which provides discount rates hundreds of underserved youth in the region, giving them the opportunity for an outdoor educational experience along the Conasauga River. Most of the kids are Title I students.
Jim Herrig of the Forest Service began the program in 2000, providing snorkeling adventures to adults and some youth. He said Thursday that during the first years of the program there were about 100 people participating each year.
That changed a year ago when RC&D began its scholarship program, allowing students to visit the snorkeling pool and learn about the wide diversity of the waterway for a minimal fee of $5.
“We had approximately 235 students and a total of 600 people attend the program last year,” said Herrig. “This year we’re anticipating 300 students and more than 650 people, with a couple of events to go.”
Herrig, who works with contractor Casper Cox in teaching students (and adults) how to snorkeling and how to enjoy the outdoors environment along the Conasauga River, said the program and RC&D’s partnership is expanding to include snorkleing on Citico Creek in McMinn County.
“These are two entirely different programs, because of the difference in the species of fish at the two locations,” Herrig said.
The students, instructed by Park Normal science teacher Trey Joyner, appeared to enjoy the outdoor outing Thursday, although the river’s water was a little cooler than most had anticipated.
The snorkeling pool is about 200 meters long between two major ripples in the river.
“The way the snorkeling program began was that there are a number of endangered species in the river and we were forced to used snorkeling to count them,” Herrig said.
He said some visitors to the river watched the counting progcess and expressed an interest in snorkeling. He then began the events for these former spectators. That initial program has expanded to today’s program and the partnership with the Resource Council. “Their funding has enabled us to continue the program and to consider some expansion,” Herrig said. “It also allows underserved youth a rare chance for an outdoor adventure.”
The Forest Service program director said the snorkeling events are extremely rewarding. “We’ve had 25 events here on the Conasauga this year, and four at Citico Creek,” Herrig said. “I get so many kids who tell me that it’s the best activity they’ve been involved in all summer.”
In addition to Thursday’s outing with the students from Chattanooga, Herrig and Forest Service and RC&D officials unveiled a new, informative kiosk adjacent to the snorkeling pool.
The kiosk lists (with photos) many of the 25-plus species of fish that abound in the river. Herrig and Cox then guided the students through a quick safety lesson, directed them in putting on snorkeling suits and masks, and thelped them to view many of the fish listed on the kiosk.
Following an hour of snorkeling for about half of the students, there was a luncheon provided by RC&S. The snorkeling continued at 1 p.m. with the other students getting their “day in the river”.
Many of the students had never been to the Cherokee National Forest, and most had never had such an opportunity in the outdoors. They were able to view the rich diversity of underwater wildlife in a clear mountain stream.
Joyner, the students’ teacher, conducted an instructional session prior to the dedication of the kiosk and snorkeling adventure. In the lesson he discussed the wide variety of “invertebra” located in the mountain environment. The students, and others, mostly referred to them “pesky, irritating gnats”.
McMinn County Sheriff, and RC&D president Joe Guy, joined Herrig and Judy Takats of the World Wildlife Fund, in saying a few words at the unveling of the kiosk.
Also attending Thursday’s program were RC&D directors Audrey Burton, Clarence McClure and Joyce Green; Easton Williams, outreach coordinator for the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Services office in Knoxville; and Joshua Smith and Dan Huser of the Conasauga River Alliance.
Joyce Green, a member of the RC&D board of directors, shared comments from a leter written by Cleveland High School teacher Jeannie Cuervo. The letter to RC&D says:
“I feel very appreciative for all you do for my kids. They were able to go snorkeling this year and it was so helpful because some of them were not going to be able to go at all, if we had to pay the full charge of $20 (they paid only $5 with the RC&D scholarships).
We had an abssolutely wonderful experience and my class benefited from it.
It is one of the best things we do all year and I’m so grateful to you.”