Excitement Returns as Students, Staff Celebrate at Salmon Summit

Students release salmon to the Columbia River during Salmon Summit in Richland, Washington. Photos by Cheri Anderson / USFWS.

By Cheri Anderson, public affairs officer, Pacific Region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

I could feel it! There was an excitement in the air that we hadn’t had the pleasure of taking in for over two years. Two years!

When many of us who work with the public began our careers, we never imagined really experiencing a global pandemic that would stop our education and outreach work.

It was unimaginable.

Now, hopefully, we are on the other end of the COVID pandemic, and there was an electric vibe in the air at the recent 30th Annual Benton County Salmon Summit in Kennewick, Washington!

This was also the first field trip for these students in two years. Imagine being in elementary school and the next time you can attend a field trip you are in middle school.

The Columbia Gorge National Fish Hatchery’s Information and Education team has participated in the event since 2004, minus the last two years due to COVID-19. Our office brings the ever-popular Migration Golf — Links to the Sea miniature golf course that depicts the life cycle of salmon.

Salmon Summit is the culminating activity for several Salmon in the Classroom schools east of the Cascades. After raising fish through the winter and spring, Salmon Summit provides students with an outdoor learning experience that enables them to release the fish into an approved water body. The event had its beginning at the Horn Rapids County Park, west of Richland, Washington. The last decade the event has moved to Columbia Park in Kennewick, Washington. The venue is ideal, as there’s plenty of Columbia River access for the salmon release and the park is a beautiful setting for the 30-plus learning stations.

Migration Golf — Links to the Sea is a miniature golf course that depicts the life cycle of salmon. Photo by Cheri Anderson / USFWS

Salmon Summit creates a personal experience and connection to the river and local environment. Students from Benton, Franklin, Klickitat, Walla Walla and Yakima counties attend field stations to learn about wise use of water, fish tagging, hydroelectric dams, fish transport, salmon life cycle, native plants, salmon recovery efforts, local wildlife and other topics.

Fifty entities, including federal, Tribal, state, county, municipal, corporate and nonprofit organizations contribute financial support, staffing, goods or services to Salmon Summit, and more than 360 volunteers participate annually. Benton Conservation District provides Salmon in the Classroom support to schools throughout eastern Washington; but Salmon in the Classroom programs exist all over the state led by various county, state, Tribal and federal agencies.

Benton County Salmon Summit is the largest salmon-related event held in the Tri-Cities area, but other salmon celebration events take place throughout Washington.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Columbia River Gorge National Fish Hatchery Complex had been attending Salmon Summit for years when we decided that such an event would be a fabulous way to culminate our own Salmon in the Classroom program.

From this idea came Water Jam — a two-day environmental outdoor learning event held at Spring Creek National Fish Hatchery for those 30-plus schools in the Columbia River Gorge participating in Salmon in the Classroom. Partners that make Water Jam possible include Bonneville Lock and Dam, U.S. Forest Service, Mid-Columbia Fisheries Enhancement Group, Underwood Conservation District, Yakama Nation Fisheries Program, Klickitat County Solid Waste, Gorge Education Outdoors, Columbia Riverkeeper, Friends of the White Salmon and Trout Unlimited.

Hatchery host volunteers during the Water Jam event at Spring Creek National Fish Hatchery. Photo by Cheri Anderson / USFWS.
Hatchery host volunteers during the Water Jam event at Spring Creek National Fish Hatchery. Photo by Cheri Anderson / USFWS.

Over 400 students cycle through 10 learning stations and are entertained by Recycle Man — a lunchtime concert showcasing conservation, the environment, salmon and stewardship. Water Jam has also been on a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic but plans to return bigger and better in 2023.

Local teachers have been asking about hatchery tours and other outdoor learning opportunities they have become accustomed to over the decades. We have had to regretfully decline due to safety protocols, knowing our programs and people would survive this long dry spell of no programming. We look forward to next school year when we will once again showcase our hatcheries during spawning tours, visit classrooms as part of our Salmon in the Classroom program, provide salmon release field trips and outdoor learning days in the spring.

Like leaves unfolding on trees, we are starting to open our hatcheries and refuges for public events and educational opportunities. We are coming out on the other side of this pandemic. This year it started with Salmon Summit and the buzz of students, excited with the release of their salmon and the joy of outdoor learning.

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