Pristine waters offer lessons

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June 25, 2013 - 12:00 AM

“Can you imagine what this place would have been like before it was a national park,” SAFE BASE Director Angela Henry said while surveying the cabins littered around Rocky Mountain National Park.
The sun was just beginning to gleam over the ridge to the east, as light cascaded onto Long’s Peak and its neighboring summits. The large basin, through which the Thompson River runs, snakes down into the valley of the park, providing a lush backdrop to the campgrounds.
The 68 SAFE BASE students were beginning to rustle around in their tents at around 7:30 a.m. Staff members had been awake for a short while, preparing breakfast for the hungry campers. It seemed most people had caught up on at least some sleep after driving through the evening from Iola on Saturday evening. Their energy would be put to good use — Monday was chock full of activities.

THE CHARTER bus picked up the elementary students, where they rode out of the basin north to a junior ranger program provided by the park.
“Ranger Rick, of all people, gave a really nice presentation,” Mark Dunlap said. Dunlap is serving as the official photographer for SAFE BASE, and he went to the presentation with the students. He said the ranger informed all of the kids on wildlife ecology, native plants, as well as the duties of a park ranger. They were all sworn in as junior rangers.

AS FOR the middle school students, they were up to their knees (literally) in aquatic ecology.
The group hiked over a mile through the RMNP campground, down into the basin to the bank of the river. Ranger Trevor Nichols (a volunteer ranger who teaches high school environmental science in Denver) led the students to a meeting area, where rangers Katie, Julie and Meredith gave an overview of the morning’s activities.
Students chattered with excitement as the rangers helped them record information of the Thompson River. They measured width, depth, velocity and discharge before splitting into groups.
Then, things got interesting.
“Wait, that’s that crab thing,” said one student.
“That one has three tails,” another replied.
The students had collected samples from the river, gathering native insects from the water to categorize, count and name. Caddis, midge and mayfly larvae, along with water snipes, were just a few of the wriggling insects they pulled from the samples. The clear water of the alpine river deceptively hides the organisms from plain sight, and the rangers had given the students an up-close-and-personal view.
The second group (they later rotated) took chemical samples of the water. In addition to temperature, they measure the oxygen, carbon dioxide, phosphate, alkalinity and phosphate levels. Ranger Nichols informed the students on the optimal levels for wildlife (such as brook trout) that reside under the crisp water.

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