Students swarm Shenandoah for study

Jack Lankard, 10, of Mount Jackson holds a crayfish that was caught during the River Rangers Program held Monday morning under the Meems Bottom Bridge in Mount Jackson. Friends of the North Fork of the Shenandoah River and Shenandoah County Parks and Recreation offered the program for fourth through seventh graders as they learned how to monitor the water and aquatic life quality of the river. Rich Cooley/Daily

QUICKSBURG — How healthy is the Shenandoah River? Ask a creature that lives there.

Leeches can live in some pretty bad conditions, said Cindy Frenzel of the Friends of the North Fork of the Shenandoah River, but the presence of other macroinvertebrates like damselflies, water-penny beetles, mayflies, Dobsonflies, crayfish, whirligig beetles, stonefly larvae and various species of snails is a good sign for the Shenandoah.

The more different kinds of life you can find in a river, Frenzel said on Monday at Meems Bottom Covered Bridge in Quicksburg, “The healthier your river is.”

The river study for area fourth through seventh grade students was part of a five-day Shenandoah River Ranger Summer Camp through the Friends of the North Fork and advertised through Shenandoah County Parks & Recreation Department and area elementary schools. Students paid $25 each, though scholarships were available for those who needed the help. The program was funded through the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fund, state funding supported by Virginians who buy Chesapeake Bay license plates for their vehicles.

Two more camps next week and July 13-17 are scheduled for Woodstock and Strasburg. Spots are still open for various ages, through Shenandoah Parks & Recreation.

John Woods, left, a teacher at North Fork Middle School, and June Holm, 12, right, of Harrisonburg, use a seine net to find critters in the river during the Friends of the North Fork of the Shenandoah River and Shenandoah County Parks and Recreation's River Rangers program held Monday in Mount Jackson. Students studied the health of the aquatic life and water quality of the river. Rich Cooley/Daily

Going strong for at least three years, the upper elementary and middle school program invites students to swarm into the river and collect insect larvae in seine nets or with their hands before studying and recording findings in notebooks.

“This is the perfect age to do this,” Frenzel said.

Students also tested the water for clarity or turbidity and levels of nitrates, phosphates, pH, dissolved oxygen and coliform bacteria from animal feces, which enters the river with rain runoff and from farm animals that graze too close to the water.

But other life near the river is beneficial, like trees that form a natural barrier from nearby roads or houses and provide root systems to help prevent erosion of the river bank.

Monday was an exploration, said John Woods, a sixth grade science teacher at North Fork Middle School in Quicksburg. The rest of the week will feature fishing, fish shocking, kayaking and a water erosion study in Shenandoah Caverns.

Nate French, 10, of Woodstock, holds a water sample that was tested for pH levels during the Friends of the North Fork of the Shenandoah River and Shenandoah County Parks and Recreation's River Rangers program for fourth through seventh graders Monday in Mount Jackson. Rich Cooley/Daily

Following a similar course that his science students did earlier this spring, Woods said he had expected students in Monday’s class to find chemical levels in the Shenandoah adequate, though perhaps a bit high.

Shallow, quickly flowing water in a wide riverbed allows for less plant growth and more dissolution of oxygen, he said, and though pH levels were a little high — about 8.5 — he said they’re not bad.

Water clarity is good and coliform levels are to be expected, even if they reach for the ceiling of state parameters.

“We are within acceptable limits,” he said.

But Monday’s study wasn’t without its surprises.

Ryan Artz, 10, of Woodstock, records water quality data in his notebook as he sits on a rock under the Meems Bottom Bridge on Monday during the Friends of the North Fork of the Shenandoah River and Shenandoah County Parks and Recreation's River Rangers program. Rich Cooley/Daily

“We expected to see the nitrates a little higher than they were,” Woods said. Typically levels run in tandem with phosphates, he said, “and they were not in tandem today.”

He attributed the difference to less plant fertilizer in the river from nearby farms than his students found during their May study.

Also, among the more likely river organisms, the class found an Asian clam, an invasive species that Frenzel explained “[is] not supposed to be here.”

It came from another country, she told students, but now that it’s here, “It will always be here from now on.”

Erin Reiley, 10, a rising fifth grader at W.W. Robinson Elementary School in Woodstock, was glad for the information at Monday’s study, though she expected to encounter even more water organisms than she had done by lunchtime.

Erin Reiley, 10, of Woodstock, tests the river for water temperature during the Friends of the North Fork of the Shenandoah River and Shenandoah County Parks and Recreation's River Rangers program held Monday under the Meems Bottom Bridge in Mount Jackson. Rich Cooley/Daily

A science enthusiast, she said, “I think it’s good that we get to learn about the river.”

Jack Lankard, 10, agreed. A rising fifth grader at Ashby Lee Elementary School in Quicksburg, he said, “It’s just that I like this place, it’s awesome.”

Contact Shenandoah County Parks & Recreation at 540-459-6777 or the Friends of the North Fork at 540-459-8550.

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com

Charlotte Weaver, 10, left, of Mount Jackson, and Deanna Chapman, 9, right, of Timberville, record their water testing data during the Friends of the North Fork of the Shenandoah River and Shenandoah County Parks and Recreation's River Rangers program held Monday under the Meems Bottom Bridge in Mount Jackson. The program, which is geared for fourth through seventh graders, dealt with measuring water and aquatic life quality of the North Fork of the Shenandoah River. Rich Cooley/Daily