10 years running strong

At the outdoor classroom last week, Maxwelton Salmon Adventure lead teacher Nancy Scoles, at right, shows foam that bubled from the creek to elementary children from Oak Harbor. - Cynthia Woolbright
At the outdoor classroom last week, Maxwelton Salmon Adventure lead teacher Nancy Scoles, at right, shows foam that bubled from the creek to elementary children from Oak Harbor.
— image credit: Cynthia Woolbright

Rene Neff admits that when she first began on an adventure over a decade ago to bring salmon education to her fifth-grade students she didn’t have much of a map to follow. When she first introduced her students at South Whidbey Intermediate School to the life-cycle of salmon she had nothing — no materials, no curriculum, no idea what was important to teach.

But, tonight, Neff and fellow members of the organization that has come to be known as the Maxwelton Salmon Adventure have plenty to celebrate. Tonight the organization will celebrate its tenth anniversary, and the group that once was the followers has turned into leaders for salmon recovery efforts in the Maxwelton Valley and on Whidbey Island.

How it began

South Whidbey Intermediate teachers Rene Neff and Laurie McCollum began rearing salmon in their fifth-grade classrooms in 1990. Thanks to parent who lived in the Maxwelton Watershed — Bruce Bochte — they connected with the Everett-based Adopt-a-Stream Foundation and state salmon learning programs and began annually raising salmon eggs obtained from the Wallis Creek Hatchery.

McCollum, who now goes by the last name of Danley and lives and teaches fourth-graders in Ashland, Ore., remembers the early years fondly.

“This organization formed on the enthusiasm that was built by the kids,” Laurie Danley said. “They’ve been there through every step of the process and have been a driving force through it all.”

In 1992 Neff, McCollum, and South Whidbey High School biology teacher Laurie Stanton began meeting with Susie Nelson and fellow Beach Watcher Laurie O’Halloran.

“The concept of education versus regulation was very important to us,” Nelson said. “All of us strongly believed that creating a healthy environment for the creek and the salmon would ultimately result in a healthier environment for the people who lived there.”

The teachers began attending Adopt-a-Stream classes to build their watershed knowledge, Neff said.

Each spring at South Whidbey Intermediate, the students watched over the salmon, monitored pH levels, and temperature. All the while they also studied the salmon life-cycle, watershed biology and sustainability.

“I wanted my students to not only be knowledgable but know they could be part of the solution,” Neff said. “Everything just kept growing because there’s always something new to learn.”

When the salmon reached the fry stage and were ready to be released into Maxwelton, Neff and the fellow teachers would get on the phone and start calling property owners to see who’d give the group permission to come on their property to release the salmon.

“Everyone began thinking ‘wouldn’t it be great if we had the support and funding to have our own place to release salmon and provide education on the watershed’,” Neff said.

In 1993 McCollum and her students started a “pennies for property” drive that grew into a collection of more than just pennies. The money and support began to pour in. The energy and enthusiasm of the teachers and their students soon proved contagious.

Additional Beach Watchers — including Robert Barnes, one of the original Maxwelton Salmon Adventure members who remains active with his involvement today — became involved and volunteers sprang to action from every corner of the South Whidbey community, including fisherman and activist Dave Anderson.

Using a play on words from the salmon life-cycle the “Chums of the Maxwelton Salmon Adventure,” the official title of the organization that established bylaws Dec. 4, 1994, became an official nonprofit in 1996.


After researching the best possible location for a dreamed “outdoor classroom,” the Maxwelton Salmon Adventure used funds raised, in combination with assistance of Island County Conservation Futures Funds to purchase a 6.3 acre site that borders a section of Maxwelton Creek in 1995. A year later South Whidbey Rotary helped raise the funds and began constructing the actual outdoor classroom structure, thanks to the generosity of local businesses and volunteers.

“It’s amazing the number of people who have contributed to making this all happen,” Neff said. “Because of this, the South Whidbey community has always felt like they’ve had their own piece in helping salmon in Maxwelton creek.”

The seed money for the outdoor classroom equipment came from a $5,000 grant awarded to Neff and her students by the Anheuser-Busch Foundation. And instructional manpower came from countless WSU Beach Watcher volunteers who volunteered their knowledge.

Since 1997 the property and outdoor classroom have been owned and maintained by the South Whidbey School District, with an agreement that the Salmon Adventure provide education for district students. District students visit the classroom two times a year — once in the spring and once in the fall.

Through fun games, nature walks and hands-on activity, students learn about the salmon life-cycle and habitat needs, aquatic insects, water quality tetsing, native plant and local bird identification, insects of the forest floor, wetland science, and nature observation and study skills.

“What started with just an idea has grown into a rich curriculum that supports salmon education in the district,” Neff said.

The outdoor learning facility includes a fully equipped classroom, a trail and boardwalk system through forest and wetland areas and an observation deck over Maxwelton Creek. Education is provided free to South Whidbey School district students and for a nominal fee for out of district students.

Maxwelton Salmon Adventure lessons are correlated with Washington State’s Essential Leraning for science and environmental education. The visits to the outdoor classroom are intended to enhance the regular classroom science curriculum and help supplement environmental education requirements that might not otherwise be met due to school budget restraints, Neff said.

The Maxwelton Salmon Adventure outdoor education program has been lead by head teacher Nancy Scoles since opening, with a core group of outdoor classroom volunteers, and Maribeth Crowe during the 2003-04 school year, assisting.

This year the outdoor classroom will play host to 10 classrooms of kids from Oak Harbor, and will receive over a dozen visits from South Whidbey students Scoles said.


John Hastings, the organization’s president, has been with the Salmon Adventure for six years. He was first introduced to the group’s salmon education when his daughter, Emiko, was a fifth-grader visiting the outdoor classroom. Hastings was vice-president of the organization back when Rene Neff was president

“I find the science fascinating, and like the challenge of recreating the habitat in which fish live,” Hastings said. “This is really a fifty year project and for some people that’s hard to imagine, but it’s important to keep going.”

Within the last three years the Salmon Adventure has shifted to identifying the problems facing the salmon in the creek and the wildlife in the surrounding watershed while still continuing to educate the public. In research heavy recent years, a Washington Trout juvenile fish inventory was completed, a Lower-Reach Feasibility Study, performed by Northwest Hydraulic Consultants, Inc., identified options for restoring estuary function near the tide gate at Maxwelton Beach, varying from no alterations to a full restoration of the once existing estuary.

In 2002 Ann Linnea helped the Salmon Adventure publish a social history of the Maxwelton Valley and the families and individuals who for a hundred years stewarded the land.

“Recording the history is an integral part of this project,” Neff said. “The Maxwelton Valley as whole has a rich cultural identity. It was important to us to recognize the people of the area who have brought the land this far.”

The Salmon Adventure’s education and watershed committees are in key focus during the organization’s anniversary year.

“Education represents one of the oldest functions of this organization and how we started out,” Hastings said.

The Salmon Adventure has already developed a curriculum for kindergarten through fifth-grade, and is now looking to expand that through 12th grade. Scoles and others on the education committee also look to develop a service learning program for the older grades where students would be involved in hand-on learning and development of watershed health. Those projects would include native plant restoration that has already began at a dozen sites along Maxwelton Creek.

“Our goal is to do some planting each year, watch how it grows and see what we can do next,” Hastings said.

What’s going to happen with all those studies? The organization will take all the information gathered in recent years into account as it makes a watershed assessment to decide problem areas and create a watershed plan.

“We need to form an actual blueprint of how to restore the system to make it fish-friendly,” Hastings said.

The latest piece in that assessment is continued outreach to property owners along the creek, sharing with them the results of the studies to date and asking for their feedback and input on how the stream could possibly be restored.

To help guide the planning, the Salmon Adventure hired Scott Pascoe to act as watershed coordinator for the organization.

“We’re working to connect with other salmon recovery efforts in the state and connect with property owners how to best work with them,” Hastings said.

The connections include close contact with the county’s water resource advisory committee, Washington State Fish and Wildlife and the Puget Sound Action Team.

The organization continues to operate on what Hastings calls a patchwork of grants and individual contributions. Its ten board members over see and 350 dues paying members.

Ten years into an envisioned fifty year project and the organization and its chums already have room for celebration, Hastings said.

“What’s healthy for the salmon is healthy for everyone,” Nelson said. “Projects like this are essential to preserve the environment for future generations.”

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