On a chilly Monday afternoon, a handful of Summit High School students tromped out of their classroom, across the road and down to the snowy bank of the Upper Blue River. Without hesitation, they moved into the water, some in waders and some simply in tennis shoes, overturning rocks and holding mesh sifters in the running current.
These students are part of the Stream Ecology class, taught by biology teacher Christopher Lambrecht. The class, which students must apply to and be accepted to join, aims to give students hands-on experience while teaching them the biology and chemistry behind stream and river ecology.
"It's taught as a biology class from a fisherman's perspective. Students get practical knowledge," Lambrecht said. "It fosters that respect for the environment, taking care of the trout and putting them back carefully."
The trout Lambrecht is referring to are currently inhabiting a large tank at the back of the Stream Ecology classroom. A donation from the local chapter of the national nonprofit Trout Unlimited, the fish serve as a key component to Lambrecht's curriculum. Students learn by taking care of the fish from hatching to maturity, at which point the aim is to release them back into the river system.
"You can teach so many things," Lambrecht said of having the fish right there in the classroom. "You can teach biology of chemical cycles; you can teach life cycles of the fish. It teaches these guys how to care for something; it's hands-on experience where they're actually working on the tank and the tank maintenance and learning how those systems work. If they want to go on to the field of biology they've got that experience; they know how to care for samples and take care of equipment."
Lambrecht said he's pleased to work with Trout Unlimited to offer this type of experience.
ut Unlimited is a nonprofit organization that stretches across the nation. The Colorado branch, founded in 1969, works as a financially self-sustaining, grassroots organization to protect, conserve and restore Colorado's coldwater fisheries and their watersheds.
The organization has been active in Summit County for decades through the Gore Range chapter, which currently has upwards of 60 members. The chapter meets every month at a different location in Summit County to discuss its current projects and how best to serve the nearby rivers, watersheds and riparian areas.
These monthly educational meetings are one of a handful of projects that the Gore Range chapter takes on. The meetings offer insight into the science of water conservation and the ecology of streams and rivers. Another project is held in the summer to teach Summit County youth how to fish. Waders, reels and rods are donated to help pass enthusiasm for the sport and caring for natural resources on to the younger generation.
The chapter also has a wounded warrior project that works to connect military veterans with fishing. Last summer, around 10 veterans came up from Fort Carson, each with various disabilities including amputations and brain injuries. Members with Trout Unlimited then helped them to fish, teaching techniques and guiding them to the best river spots.
In addition to fishing, Trout Unlimited works to conserve and restore rivers and streams. One of the biggest projects undertaken by the Gore Range chapter is the restoration of more than 17 miles of the Swan River near Breckenridge.
"It was just flip-flopped during the mining era," said Gore Range chapter secretary Corkie Ramey. "The dredges came through and churned it all up and the rocks ended up on top and the water found its way through there."
Now the chapter is working to turn the river right side up, using both heavy equipment and manpower to move the rocks and let the water flow up freely on the surface. Eventually, the group hopes to introduce cutthroat and rainbow trout to the revitalized river.
"We're going to not only enhance the stream, we're going to put the fish back too," Ramey said.
The Gore Chapter is into its second year of working directly with Summit High students. Last year it donated around 200 trout eggs for the students to raise. Although in the end there were not enough trout to be able to release into the wild, it was a learning experience. This year the students were able to produce nearly 60 rainbow trout from 100 donated eggs.
Now the trout have entered the "small fry" part of the life cycle and are all about 4 inches long. Next, about half of the fish will be sacrificed in the name of disease control. The specimens will be sent away to be studied by Park and Wildlife pathologists to ensure that the fish are disease-free and safe to be released back into the environment. Once the fish are approved and reach adulthood (around 6 inches long), the class will determine the best place to release them into the river.
The Stream Ecology class is a popular one, and the students seem excited about the prospect of eventually releasing the fish. For now, however, they're focused on collecting bugs in the river and learning more about how insects tie into the cycle of the stream.
"We're excited," said Brian Acosta, a freshman who has been taking the course since the first quarter. "In a week or two they're going to come in and test them, so that's going to be really cool to see."
"We're excited how many fish there are," fellow classmate Joe McComb agreed.
Many students said that they heard the class talked up by Lambrecht or their classmates and were intrigued with the natural component, particularly the ability to do hands-on work outdoors.
"The course intrigued me because 'Happy' is my biology teacher as well," McComb said, referring to Lambrecht by his nickname. "He said that it's really fun and if you love nature you should do it." He gestures to the river behind him. "I love nature."
"Probably coming out to the river and taking samples," said senior Kristina Middlebrook of her favorite part of the class. "It's a lot of fun hiking through the snow and getting to come outside."
Lambrecht looks just as excited as the students, if not more, to be outside. He moves from group to group, adjusting the angle of a mesh filter or pointing out particular species of bugs that the students have gathered into plastic jugs. He said that being outdoors and doing the work by hand greatly improves the experience and gives unique knowledge to the students.
"I went into biology because I loved the subject and loved reading about it and doing the lab in class," he said, "but I didn't really know what a biologist does on a daily basis."
Trout Unlimited is also happy to assist in that experience, Ramey said.
"It allows them to get involved in the ecology of the area and the environment and hopefully makes them good stewards of the earth," she said. "If they can see what is growing and how things are working in the life cycle of the earth, then they have more appreciation through understanding.
"Through education comes understanding - they understand it and they appreciate it, then they take care of it."