LACLEDE — Anyone who says girls don't like bugs has never met Hannah Fisher or Bella Bailey.
The Kootenai Elementary fifth-graders were practically jumping with excitement as they scooped bugs out of the water to look at them through a microscope. They actually jumped when one of them put one of the larger bugs in the Petri dish because, Looking through the microscope, the thing was monstrous.
The girls joined about 200 other fifth-graders from across Bonner County who braved the rain Thursday to learn about water, bugs, fish and other wildlife during the 23rd annual Pend Oreille Water Festival. Gail Bolin, with Bonner Soil and Water Conservation District and festival coordinator, said the event is important because having "good clean water is necessary," not only for human health, but for the health of aquatic life such as fish, insects and plants.
"So we feel that the fifth grade is a good age to teach them how to be good stewards of our environment, and to learn how to take steps to protect it, and that everything — all living things — depend on water to survive," Bolin said.
Bolin said she goes around to each fifth-grade classroom prior to the festival to give a presentation about water and its importance. The festival takes place over two days, with about 200 students each day. Six stations are set up for the kids to rotate through during the day, including fisheries, watershed, water quality, animal tracks, fur trapping, and orienteering.
Hannah and Bella said they "really liked" the animal tracks station where they took white bandanas and decorated them with different, life-size animal tracks using the ink stamps provided. Their favorite station, however, was the water quality station.
"It's really fun," Hannah said. "We learned about all of these different types of bugs."
The girls said some of the different insects they learned about and got to peek at through the microscope were caddisfly nymphs and dragonfly nymphs.
Jim Ekins with the University of Idaho Extension said part of water quality is teaching the kids how to identify creatures using their different characteristics.
"The kids are learning that it is important to keep the water clean, and it is important to know who is living in the water, which will help them know if it is safe to swim in it, what kind of fish they might catch — stuff like that," Ekins said. "And they are also learning about the importance of water quality to our communities."
After going through all the stations throughout the day, the final presentation was on small mammals, hosted by Beth Paragamian with Idaho Fish and Game. The kids learned about young mammals and the dangers they face. The taxidermied animals included a fawn, bear cub, elk calf, a cougar kitten and a bobcat kitten.
"This time of year there are a lot of incidents where people will find a baby animal and assume it's been abandoned by the mother, because they don't see any adult around," Paragamian said.
She explained to the kids that the parents will stay away from the baby unless it is feeding it so that the adult scent doesn't attract predators. Adult animals carry a strong scent, whereas the babies do not, she said.
"So the more the parents stay away, the more protected the young is from predators," Paragamian said.
She did bring one live bird, a kestrel, which is the smallest member of the falcon family, as well as a live ferret, but ran out of time as the kids had to head to the buses before seeing the ferret.
The festival is co-sponsored by the Bonner Soil and Water Conservation District and the Army Corps of Engineers, and is supported through grants and donations. Volunteers help out at the event each year, including high school students from John Hastings class at Sandpoint High School.
SHS senior Cienna Roget was one of several high school volunteers on Thursday and said she still has her bandana she made with the animal tracks when she attended the festival as a fifth-grader. Another thing that stuck out in her mind, she said, was the watershed station where they use a model and different colored liquid to simulate pollution in the water.
"I think (the festival) is really important because it teaches the kids about the native wildlife and water species, and how to treat the water properly, which I think is really important when you live in Sandpoint especially, because we are surrounded by the lake," Roget said.
Another 200 fifth-graders from different Bonner County schools will head to Riley Creek today as the festival continues.
Mary Malone can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @MaryDailyBee.