For as long as I can remember, I’ve been drawn to water like a magnet. At the creek near my home, for hours on end, I’d wade and stare through the water’s silvery surface to investigate the currents, plants, and creatures living there. Each summer I’d go kayaking every chance I’d get, and always returned with my boat full of … trash. I simply couldn’t look the other way or rationalize it wasn’t my problem: I had to pick it up, unless it was too big to carry. What if fish slurped those cigarette butts, tangled in the six-pack rings, choked on the pool-toy polystyrene bits, grazed those torn and rusty cans and were slashed? What if an osprey or heron stepped into that rat’s nest of discarded fishing line, or a turtle or river otter became entangled in it?

Fast forward to March 2015, when I could hardly believe my ears when my mother told me ADK was offering a summer Teen Aquatic Stewardship Program. As I readied my application and essay, I felt optimistic about sending it off to Seth Jones, ADK’s education programs coordinator, who had introduced me to my first trout lily during the 46ers annual Outdoor Skills Workshop in 2013. Until participating in Seth’s nature walk that spring, I had never met anyone who knew the names of, and truly cared about, all the club mosses, flowers, lichens, sundews, newts, salamanders, and so on, and wanted to make sure no one stepped on any of them…just like me!

On Wednesday, July 8, 2015, we all gathered at Adirondak Loj. In addition to Seth, we met our other amazing instructors: Brendan Wiltse, from the Ausable River Association, and Julia Goren, ADK’s education director. Fellow participants came from all over New York State, and we were all excited to set up in our new home for the week, a lean-to in ADK’s Wilderness Campground.

Soon we were out the door and climbing Mt. Jo, where we were rewarded with an awe-inspiring view of the High Peaks. At the top we ate our lunches and learned about watersheds. We learned how to gauge the perimeter of a watershed and the flow directions of streams and rivers within it by studying a map. We also learned about invasive species in Adirondack watersheds.

Two teens siphon water from Mirror Lake for sampling

Lake Study

On our first full day we practiced paddling skills on Heart Lake and learned the basics of limnology, the study of the biological, chemical, and physical features of lakes and other bodies of fresh water. Canoeing was much trickier than I thought, especially coordinating our strokes to actually get moving in the right direction! We played a game where we maneuvered out to sponges floating in the lake, then picked up the sponges and flipped them, using only our paddles, into the other teams’ canoes to tag them out.

Paddling on both Heart Lake and later Mirror Lake, in Lake Placid, we learned how to use an amazingly cool (and expensive!) probe to measure water temperature, dissolved oxygen levels, and conductivity (salinity), all factors in water quality. We also tested phosphate levels. We discovered that Heart Lake, more in the wilderness, had nearly perfect water quality with low salinity and phosphates, while in town, Mirror Lake had high salinity and phosphates, likely caused by winter road salting and fertilizers. Mirror Lake was also much warmer than Heart Lake, the result of its high salinity. This at least partially explains the plummeting number of lake trout in Mirror Lake, because they need cool water to thrive.

Teens strain water in a river to sample

River Study

The next day we sampled benthic macroinvertebrate populations on the West Branch of the Ausable River just outside of Lake Placid. These are small animals that live in streams and are large enough to be seen with the naked eye, but have no backbone. The presence of certain species indicates good water quality; conversely, if they are not present, the water is unhealthy. We then put in at the Lake Everest beach in Wilmington and paddled upstream to the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge and Rehabilitation Center, where we learned about native wildlife and, sadly, how human activities frequently injure and kill

For our last full day we headed out to the Lake Champlain delta of the Ausable to take water samples. The lake was too rough for us to paddle, so we stopped at Ausable Chasm for a tour. The Ausable has carved a spectacular gorge here!

Every morning we headed to the Loj for a delicious breakfast, then picked up our excellent bag lunches made for us by the Loj staff. Returning home each evening, we relaxed at our lean-to and cooked dinner together on camp stoves. One night we cooked mac and cheese with vegetables; another evening we made pizzas. We learned how to “Leave No Trace” as we cooked and cleaned up. As we turned into our sleeping bags each night under the star-studded sky, complete with Milky Way views that you NEVER see near the cities, we happily discussed the day’s events and looked forward to the next great day. This program opened my eyes to the dangers I can’t see and pile into my kayak. Our fragile environment and all its creatures need educated humans to defend them. Our participation in this Stewardship Program will help all of us be more effective in our quest to protect and preserve our environment. Thank you, ADK and the Ausable River Association!

You can apply for this program here.

Oliver Hess is a junior at Pittsford Sutherland High School in Rochester, New York. He is an aspiring 46er and has worked the past two summers with the Youth Conservation Corps at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Potomac River National Wildlife Refuge Complex. He enjoys kayaking, fishing, hiking, and Nordic and alpine skiing, and intends to pursue a career in biology, herpetology, and/or wildlife sciences.