Each year, the statewide nonprofit organization Iowa Rivers Revival honors a community for its commitment to the river that runs through it. This year the group named Decorah as its River Town of the Year.
On a cool spring day, fish splash at the trout hatchery in Decorah as a few hearty men in waders angle nearby. Alongside the Upper Iowa River is a multi-use, four season trail. The recreation options are among the reasons Iowa Rivers Revival selected Decorah and the Oneota Valley for this year's award.
"They’re intentionally passing on the legacy of this river and celebrating and protecting the river up in Decorah," said Bob Brammer, an Iowa Rivers Revival board member.
And he says one of the unique ways they’re doing that is in the classroom.
"It really stood out that it’s incorporated into the curriculum basically from K through 12 in the Decorah schools."
At Decorah Middle School, after school lets out on that same day, a group of seventh graders stops into their science classroom to talk about what that means for them.
"We’re looking at the trout that we have been parenting, kind of, and we learned about the life cycle of them," said Desirae Pitz. She and her classmates received 200 rainbow trout eggs thanks to Trout Unlimited. It took a little while for the eggs to emerge.
"When we first got the fish, they made little nests at the bottom, so we couldn’t see them hatching," said Ann Meirick. "So it was kind of fun when they all came up because then we could see what was happening."
They’re not just watching the fish. They feed them. They measure ammonia and nitrate levels in the water. Science teacher Meg Storkamp has been incorporating local waterways into her classroom for years. In the fall and spring she and other teachers take seventh graders on field trips to a nearby stream.
"That’s where I introduce them to water testing and they do a language activity with poetry and reflective writing and we spend the whole day there," she said. "And I teach them a lot about watersheds and this watershed in which we live and water in general."
But this is the first time the spring field trip will include releasing fish the students have raised from eggs. Storkamp says this project, which gets help from the local Department of Natural Resources office and the hatchery, has allowed for more scientific exploration.
"We also did a genetics activity about the trout. We’ve looked at the amount of dissolved oxygen versus temperature," Storkamp said. "We compared the life cycle of a trout to the life cycle of a human."
Storkamp and her students say the classroom focus complements the many ways people in this area enjoy the Upper Iowa River and its tributaries.
"I fish, I canoe, and once in a while I just goof off at the river," said Sean Malone, another seventh grader.
Tubing and kayaking are also popular. And the lessons from the middle school carry forward. High school senior Sam Iverson says his freshman year physical science class plunged right in to learn about life in the water.
"We had waders on and we would go out during our class period. It was pretty interesting," he said. "We’d be wet the rest of the day but it was a good experience."