With mud flying and while surrounded by children wielding tools akin to heavy-duty pogo sticks, Brandon Bywater of the Nisqually River Education Project couldn’t help but crack a smile.
“For me, the number one goal is that the kids are having fun outdoors,” he said. “Hopefully, they leave having learned something, too.”
The kids Bywater spoke of consisted of the entire fourth grade class from Simpson Elementary School in Montesano. The school tries to bring that grade to Centralia each year for a day of planting trees along the Discovery Trail.
Representatives from the Chehalis River Basin Land Trust, Chehalis Basin Education Consortium and others helped to facilitate the experience Jan. 24.
Under the watchful guidance of Bywater, Rachel Stendahl of the CBEC and a dozen other adult volunteers, students bored holes in the ground and planted tree starts, dotting the reed canary grass with barren sticks measuring about a yard in length.
Volunteers worked last week to clear circular areas within the thick brush so the children could reach the soil beneath.
Sporting colorful rain boots and jackets, the kids enjoyed a few minutes of stomping through the mud and play-fighting with their work gloves before Stendahl got their attention for a short introduction.
“It’s a controlled chaos,” said Jan Robinson, president of the land trust board of directors, as she helped distribute gloves and tools. “But that’s a good thing. … It’s always great to get the kids out here.”
Simpson Elementary teacher Tina Niels pointed out trees along the trail her past students had planted as fourth-graders more than a decade ago. She helped a group of students space out their tree starts while explaining how the experience helps lock in the units on ecology and wildlife biology she teaches each year.
Children at Simpson Elementary learn about riparian zones — areas of vegetation along river banks that separates the waterway from the land — and the life cycle of salmon. They do water testing exercises twice a year.
Niels said her goal is, that by the end of each school year, her students know which plants they see are native to the Northwest.
“I’m going to remember how fun it was to plant the trees with the digger tools and put the sticks in the ground,” Zayden Moreau said. “Also, how the trees can help the environment.”
The students were split into two groups. One spent the morning out on the trail, while the other received a tour of the wastewater treatment plant operated by the city of Centralia. After a lunch break, the two clusters swapped roles for the remainder of the afternoon.
On the tour, students saw how wastewater enters the facility, gets filtered, treated and released back out into the water supply. Employees showed off the laboratory space where they keep the bacteria used to treat contaminated water.
When it was time to return home, the bus got stuck in the mud while driving up an unpaved roadway. A backhoe was summoned to tow it out of the muck.
While an inconvenience to be sure, the scene had the full attention of each student and might have made it more likely they’ll remember the field trip for years to come.