Afterward, he was talking to a worker at the local salmon hatchery who told him about the salmon in the classroom program. The educational program is one that teaches students about the life cycle of the salmon, its ecosystem and other aspects of the fish and its habitat. Participating classrooms raise young salmon and then stock them in nearby waters. Teachers are encouraged to incorporate salmon into their lessons. The program is similar to the trout in the classroom program, popular throughout New York state.
“I thought maybe we could do something like that in Plattsburgh on Lake Champlain with our rivers, and maybe the people would start treating them a little better,” said Lee, a member of the Lake Champlain Chapter of Trout Unlimited.
Soon after, Lee helped introduce the program to the Stafford Middle School in Plattsburgh. Today, the program is in about 20 schools throughout the North Country, including several Adirondack schools.
One of the schools that has tried the program recently was the kindergarten class at the Northern Lights School in Saranac Lake. The class is the youngest in the local program.
Teacher Kim Holmlund said the kids are too young to really understand most of the curriculum, but have really become interested in the young fish.
“When they’re out this summer, I know they’ll make the connection,” Holmlund said.
Northern Lights School received salmon eggs in January. They were then put in a fish tank provided by Trout Unlimited. Since then, the teachers have been maintaining the tank, which includes changing the water and making sure the temperature lines up with the season.
In late May, with the help of retired Adirondack Fish Hatchery employee Ed Grant, they released 1.5-inch salmon fry, using a stocking permit they received from the state. The fish were put into Hatchery Brook in Lake Clear.
The school has also received help with these efforts from Bill Wellman, head of the Lake Champlain Chapter and Matt Rothamel, a member of the Tri-Lakes chapter and owner of Blue Line Sports in Saranac Lake.
Advocates of the program believe it is successful because there are many hands-on elements to it. Members of TU, like Lee, will give presentations to classes on things like fly fishing. Plus, the salmon are in tanks right in the classroom, so students can see the fish grow on a daily basis.
“It’s a living, breathing creature that kids can put their hands on, versus just looking at a book and picture,” Lee said. “We need to get our kids interested in the environment. I have nothing against TV. I have nothing against computers and stuff like that. It’s great to have those things, but they need to have hands-on stuff that they can do.”
Salmon have historically lived in oceans. They have also been in Lake Champlain for centuries, although there’s debate over whether they were in the lake originally or migrated there.
Salmon weren’t in the interior Adirondacks until the state Department of Environmental Conservation started stocking them in lakes and ponds. Salmon do, however, spawn in rivers such as the Saranac, but on a very limited basis because their migrations have been impeded by dams.
The salmon population dropped a couple of hundred years ago because dams were built on rivers where they used to spawn. Pollution and overfishing also played a role in the decline of the fish.
In recent years, the salmon population has rebounded after the DEC implemented a successful program to decrease the number of sea lamprey. DEC now uses a pesticide to kill sea lamprey, which are parasites that attach themselves to salmon, eventually killing them.
But Rich Preall, a fisheries biologist with the DEC, said that fish counts last fall indicated the salmon population is stronger than it has been in years.
“It’s going to be a good spring for salmon along Lake Champlain,” Preall said in late April. “We are already getting reports they are catching them at the mouth of the Saranac River in Plattsburgh.”
That’s good news for fishermen and any conservationist who appreciates the fish.
“At one time there were so many salmon coming up the Saranac River that in Morrisonville, farmers used to take a buck board out into the river with a team of horses and with pitchforks. They could load the back of a wagon with 18- to 25-pound salmon in an hour’s time,” Lee said. “This is documented in the history of Clinton County. In fact, on the seal of Clinton County, there is a salmon. That’s because that’s how important the salmon used to be to the populace around here.”
Elle Dawson and Gemma Cantwell release a salmon into Hatchery Brook in Lake Clear.