Tina Murray, who developed the Green Teen Program at Shabazz, fishes with Jesus Miranda.
Casting for common ground
Students and grizzled fly-fishers share the value of exploring, enjoying and improving conditions streamside.
Stories and Photos by Ed Culhane
We hiked downstream, crossing the river three times, till we reached the mouth of a tributary, a lesser-known trout stream, and began fishing our way up. It was a meadow stream, snaking through a high-ridged valley. Foraging dairy cows watched us with sleepy indolence. Up ahead was a narrowing where swifter water dug a deeper pool, and we could see rising trout. We advanced in a semi-circle, angling away from the stream so the trout would not see us. We made an odd couple – an outdoor writer in his 50s and a 16- year-old girl from Madison who'd never been fly-fishing – not that there was anyone around to notice. I hadn't planned on this. I'd been drafted as a guide at the last minute. Now, more than anything, I wanted this quiet girl beside me to catch a wild trout...
Base camp was at the Avalanche campground on the West Fork of the Kickapoo River in Vernon County. Three Madison teachers and their 17 Project Green Teen students from Malcolm Shabazz City High School had laid siege to the clubhouse.
They'd be here for seven days in early May, 2009, a colorful beachhead of youth and ethnic diversity in a campground normally and chiefly occupied by older white guys with whiskers and creaky knees – or in other words, people like me.
I'd been tracking the students for two days, taking photographs and notes. I'd come to understand that something special was going on, something unexpected, something beyond the service projects and the cool streamside classes led by scientists from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
So far, I'd reached one conclusion. Head teacher Tina Murray, who created this program six years ago, is some kind of wizard.
The idea came to her when she was off by herself, catching trout, absorbing the natural beauty around her. She thought of her students, inner city teenagers whose experiences were too narrow and limited to include something as esoteric as fly-fishing.
"I thought, wouldn't it be great if the kids could experience this," Murray said. "It would add some peace and strength to their lives."
Somehow, through force of will, she convinced a whole bunch of people to volunteer their time and expertise to make it happen. In the end, she and her colleagues turned these beautiful spring creeks into the centerpiece of an ecology- based program so engaging and powerful it is transforming the lives of at-risk high school students.
"Society is too ready to dismiss these teenagers," Murray said. "There's this bizarre belief that after middle school you can't change them. These guys are idealistic, and after this program, they are committed."
Project Green Teen is a second semester option at Shabazz in which standard classes – English, social studies, math, science and health – are reworked as tools to understand stream ecology and the relationships between surface waters and the people who live, work and play around them. This week-long field trip is the culmination.
Early Saturday the school group gathered in an open field at Read's Creek Nursery outside the tiny hamlet of Readstown, greeted by volunteers from the Blackhawk Chapter of Trout Unlimited, stacks of oak blocks and planks, reinforcing steel rods, generators, power drills, sledge hammers and, best of all, nail guns.
They were divided into teams, and with coaching from the TU crew started to build large, crib-like LUNKER structures. These will be anchored below the water line into the outside banks of streams degraded by erosion. The LUNKER projects stabilize the banks creating shaded cover for trout.
Next came three, short concurrent sessions. In one, science teacher Robert Banks led forays into the woods in search of morels. In another, Jeff Hastings, national TU project manager for the Driftless Area Restoration Effort, talked about stream rehabilitation and how a partnership between the DNR and TU has restored hundreds of miles of trout stream.
The third session was Blackhawk TU official Fred Young, CEO of a multi-million-dollar, high-tech engineering company, talking to the students about getting ahead in life. He's been hiring people for 45 years. He told them he screens for attendance. He is willing to invest in people who can be trusted to show up.
"The next thing I look for is attitude," he said. "What I am looking for is that in at least one of your subjects, you excelled at it. Grades are the last thing I care about. I am looking for a spark of creativity."
Malcolm Shabazz is an alternative high school that draws students from the four public high schools in Madison. With an enrollment of about 130, it is designed for students who for one reason or another don't fit in at a mainstream high school. Some are unusually quiet. Others, more outwardly rebellious, display their nonconformity with tattoos, facial piercings or bright hair.
"I'm not a good test taker," said Julia Rowe. "I failed every test. I never did my homework. I didn't see the point in filling out worthless worksheets."
For some of these students Shabazz is not just an alternative, it's a lifeline.
"Shabazz is pretty much my savior," said Heidi Kelley.
There's a process for getting in. The student's family must be involved. Each prospective student spends one full day shadowing a Shabazz student. A committee decides who will get written invitations. Those not invited receive a written explanation.
"We don't have a lot of tests in our curriculum except in math and science," said Meghan Murphy. "We're all in the same class but not all at the same level. We help each other through whatever we are doing."
At Shabazz, the question is always asked: "What are you going to do about it?"
"Shabazz is community service based," Emma Urbas said. "We take what we learn in the classroom and apply it in the outside world."
In the Green Teen Program, which is composed of 17 to 20 students each year, they plant trees, remove invasive plants and pull rubbish out of streambanks. "We work as a team," Murphy said, "so we get to know each other really well."
While the educators at Shabazz rely less on standardized tests and grades, preferring a pass-fail approach and written evaluations, they are running a fully accredited high school whose students take the same college entrance exams as everyone else. Three of every four Shabazz graduates enter college.
Before the year was out, Rowe had received a four-year scholarship in the environmental resources program at Northland College in Ashland. Urbas was accepted at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point where she will study water resource management.
Saturday afternoon finds the team in their waders perched on a rocky outcropping. A few feet to their right, the trout stream called Seas Branch surges from the hillside. This is the source, where groundwater bursts from the earth, cool and clear, and becomes one of the most beautiful things on earth – a trout stream.
Mike Miller, a DNR stream ecologist, faces the explorers from the opposite bank. The newborn Seas Branch foams into whitewater at their feet, running between teacher and students, dancing over moss covered rocks.
The students are learning how land use – development, farm practices, conservation, manure management – affects the stream. They learn how to measure the creek's health. They take its temperature, measure levels of dissolved oxygen and determine its electrical conductivity.
Still, a rock that Miller takes out of the stream is covered with life forms – tiny crustaceans, caddis fly larvae inside casings made of twigs or pebbles, mayfly larvae, stonefly nymphs.
A short drive and class is reconvened a mile downstream. The Seas Branch has grown, fed by rivulets and springs. Now comes the fun part. Using a small fish shocker they briefly stun trout so they can be examined. That's followed by screening creepy looking aquatic bugs out of river silt to be classified. Some water bugs are more sensitive to pollution than others. Their presence is an accurate barometer of stream health. Stoneflies, like cockroaches, we learn, were crawling around millions of years before there were trees.
Miller has been a Shabazz volunteer for four years, he told me at dinner.
"It is critically important that upcoming generations do a better job than the last," he said.
Food preparation is part of their education and everyone serves on cooking and cleanup crews. Teacher Martha Vasquez is helping them examine eating habits and options. They are reading Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal.
At dinner, students talk about their day.
"My favorite part was when we were in the stream, walking in the water," Martha Price said. "I used to think fish were kind of gross looking, but when I saw the brook trout – they were really pretty."
Alex Wolfe liked using electricity to briefly shock trout, a technique used to study fish populations. And he liked the nail gun. With few exceptions, they all loved the nail gun.
"I felt like I was the most powerful person in the world with it," Sarah Bortz said.
"We were just like machines," Murphy said. "We got that done so fast and so effortlessly."
Then Wolfe got to the heart of it.
"I know now that I really like being outside," he said, "and I love nature."
Dave Vetrano, DNR fisheries team supervisor out of La Crosse, showed up Sunday morning with a beefed-up fish shocking operation in the persons of DNR fisheries technicians Kevin Mauel, Beth Stuhr and Jim Webster. Several large trout, suckers and a dogfish were captured and each species, in turn, was displayed for the students in a portable aquarium that sits on a pole. Then the fish were released unharmed.
"Form follows function," Vetrano said, describing the functions of the swim bladder, the lateral line, the general shape of each fish, and how these adaptations help the fish survive.
"Trout have been around for thousands of years, but other species, like gar, date back hundreds of millions of years.
"Long before Tyrannosaurus rex roamed the earth, fish were swimming around in the ocean."
Vetrano establishes his credentials by describing the inauspicious beginnings of his college career.
"I flunked out," he reported. "I had to stay out for six months. I lost my student deferment and got drafted."
It took three starts before it took, before he found a program, natural resources, that thrilled him.
"I started with a 2.0, and graduated on the dean's list," he said. "I started as a temporary worker for the DNR. After 30 years, I still can't believe they pay me to do this."
It's Sunday afternoon and we're gearing up for the first of five evenings of guided fishing. Amazed, I watched as some of the best fly-fishermen in the state started showing up. Several I recognized. Others I knew by reputation. Several are professional guides. A good percentage of them are older. Some are retired.
How was this possible? Some of these guys command fees of several hundred dollars for a guided fishing trip, and yet here they were, unpaid volunteers, reporting, some of them, for a week of duty.
Murray started this journey seven years ago by attending meetings of Trout Unlimited chapters and talking about her idea. She wanted her teens to experience fly-fishing, but she didn't have the necessary skills to teach them. Not much happened at first until John Gribb of Mount Horeb, an officer with the Southern Wisconsin Chapter of Trout Unlimited, picked up the challenge.
"There was a little reluctance in the beginning," Gribb said. "I asked her what I could do. She said, 'Get guides.'"
This was the program's fifth year. Skeptics have become believers. Each spring more guides show up. Those who come keep coming back.
"I could tell we were being tested the first two years," Murray said. "We've proven ourselves. We've crossed some invisible barrier."
By Monday night, there was a guide for every student.
"It's good for us," Gribb said. "It's good for the kids. I feel rewarded."
Murray quickly assigns the matches. For the next five evenings, no student will have the same guide twice. There were maybe ten of them this first night, which meant many would end up guiding two students, which is not ideal, especially with excursions limited to 3 ½ hours.
I was standing by my car, camera ready, watching with amusement as these gnarly, weather-worn outdoorsmen in their beat-up waders, generally a conservative bunch, were paired with rebellious, free-thinking, body-pierced teenagers.
Murray came by, stopped and looked at me. She'd figured out by now that I was a fly-fisherman.
"Did you bring your waders with you?" she asked.
I'd found Jamie Tanaka, 16, standing off by herself while a guide worked with another student. She'd attended two casting clinics, but this was her first time fly-fishing. She was quiet. We fished the West Fork with the others for a while, but then I'd taken her on a hike. I like fishing where there aren't other people around, and this little coulee stream has often been generous.
Each night, from 9 to 11, a campfire blazed and the students shared reflections, talking about what they were learning and doing and what it meant in their lives.
Murray said the nightly campfire and shared reflections were a powerful part of the field trip.
"I think that's the thing that puts it inside the kids," Murray said. "It's in the reflections. After that, they own it."
Ed Culhane is the regional public affairs manager for DNR's West Central Region based in Eau Claire.