Students have a ball at 23rd annual Cayuga wetlands exploration

Oct. 1—"This will be a scene of chaos in a few minutes," warned Aaron Douglas of Indiana's Department of Natural Resources as he stood amid the wetlands of Duke Energy's Cayuga Generating Station on Friday.

More than 400 eighth graders from Southwest Parke, North Central Parke, South Vermillion and North Vermillion school corporations gathered there to explore and learn about the value and function of wetlands.

Douglas was helping teach a klatch of kids about bird migration at the wildlife station. The students would soon participate in a contest in which they would mimic migrating waterfowl.

Each student was given two rings and charged with visiting two of three tables representing Indiana stops along the migratory path. They had to toss a ring and get it to circle a glass tube atop the table, much as one would at a county-fair game of chance.

Once they had successfully ringed two tubes, they grabbed an orange disk off the ground and raced to their final destination. Only one catch: There was one fewer disks than there were students, so the student who didn't get one was, so to speak, a dead duck.

"We wondered if eighth graders would take it very seriously, and it turns out they take it very seriously," Douglas reported.

"Almost too seriously — they don't want to die."

Indeed, students were in a frenzy as they tried to loop the tubes with rings. Parke-Heritage's Anesa Vaseli survived — but just barely, as she was one of the last to get her rings secure around the tubes.

"It was really hard, especially the pressure," Vaseli said, "but I was able to get [the ring] on it."

Vaseli said that of the educational stations she visited, her favorite was "definitely the fish station, the fishes were very big and they were very impressive and how many there were."

In the future, she added, she would like to further investigate "hydrology which was very interesting, especially how they filtered the water. It was very nice."

Throughout the day, students rotated through 12 stations environmentally related to the wetlands.

Becky Holbert, a 4-H Youth Extension Educator with Purdue University who organized the event, said, "There's hands-on activities at most of the stations. Our philosophy is 'Tell me, I'll forget; teach me, I'll remember; involve me, I'll understand.' The presenters do a fantastic job of involving the students in the educational process."

At the river ecology station, students were invited to hold live fish captured from the Wabash River earlier in the day by John Pike, lead scientist for Duke Energy.

A couple fish he had captured were invasive and parasitic species, including an Asian carp, which if caught could not be thrown back — it had to be eaten or fed to eagles or other predators. In fact, it had been given a new name, "copi," to sound more like something one would like to see on a dinner plate.

"They have a lot of protein," noted Pike (a perfect name for a guy who works with fish all day), "but I think they taste like garbage."

When she visited the water ecology station, Parke-Heritage's Vaseli, displayed the Asian carp — er, copi. "It was very big, very slimy — it wasn't very aggressive, though."

No, aggressive was how you'd describe the blue sucker, which Rachel Plank of Riverton-Parke was tasked with wrangling. It thrashed about madly, but she maintained her grip on it, something a student later in the day couldn't manage to do.

Keeping a blue sucker under control is "nerve-racking, kind of," Plank reported. Since she'd like to study animals in the future, she enjoyed stations dedicated to entomology and beavers and muskrats.

Zachary Bowling, a wildlife specialist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said of his station, "We're just talking about neat facts about beavers and muskrats — how they live."

He offered a couple of fun facts: "Beavers teeth grow throughout their entire life, so they have to gnaw wood constantly to keep them short. Another cool fact is that they have split toenails that they use as a comb. They're monogamous, which is rare in the animal kingdom."

Other stations taught students about bats, tallgrass, telemetry and Wabash River history. There was one station, engineering, that didn't have an ecological theme, but instead referenced Duke Energy's ownership of the grounds.

"While the kids are here today, learning about the wetlands and nature, we also want to tell them about what we do here, and we make electric energy," said Brian Wininger, a retired engineering manager for Duke Energy, who manned that station.

"We tell them about different ways to make power — we tell them about coal, we talk about what's good about it and what's not-so-good about it and how we deal with it. We also talk about different ways to make electricity, like solar [and] nuclear."

It was the 23rd year Duke hosted the event in partnership with educators from Purdue Extension Vermillion County.

David Kronke can be reached at 812-231-4232 or at david.kronke@tribstar.com.