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Children inspire book about local salmon

Ecologist Ron Hirschi has spent the last three decades educating children about local marine habitat. He recently wrote a children’s book dedicated to the kids of Poulsbo.          - Kipp Robertson / Herald
Ecologist Ron Hirschi has spent the last three decades educating children about local marine habitat. He recently wrote a children’s book dedicated to the kids of Poulsbo.
— image credit: Kipp Robertson / Herald

POULSBO — Ron Hirschi is a hands-on educator.

On a slightly damp day in April, he wades into the south fork of Dogfish Creek with a wide net in hand. He stands still to capture the small fish that swim by — three-year-old cutthroat trout, or month-old coho salmon if he’s lucky.

Hirschi wants to show the delicate fish to the preschoolers he’s with, who are clamoring on the bank to catch a glimpse.

The preschoolers are from Martha & Mary KIDS, who have been learning from Hirschi for the past few months. Hirschi was reading some of his books at Liberty Bay Books when the M&M kids starting visiting to learn about the local environment through his picture books.

Hirschi has a two-fold education method: leading field trips to local streams, ponds and larger bodies of water, like Hood Canal; and writing charmingly illustrated books about local marine flora and fauna. He has worked in local schools, such as Breidablik, Gordon and Suquamish elementaries, as well as schools in Vancouver, B.C., Ohio and Hawaii.

Hirschi trained as a fish and wildlife ecologist, and has worked for the state, the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe and as a consultant since 1976. He began telling nature stories to his daughter when she was young, and became inspired to share his stories with other children.

Hirschi has written more than 50 books about the ocean, global warming, endangered species and environmental science.

His latest book, “The Egg,” is dedicated to the children of Poulsbo, and was inspired by the preschoolers at Martha & Mary. “The Egg” is about the salmon’s earliest life stages.

At the stream and in the book, Hirschi teaches children how the leaves and vegetation surrounding the stream provide food and nourishment to the fish; the insects eat the decomposed leaves and the fish eat the insects. In the book, the egg floats by a frog, a rabbit and a beaver, but they cannot take care of the egg. Humans can, the book tells us, by protecting the stream and keeping it clean.

“I’m trying to find ways to restore health to a small stream, to do something in my own community that makes a difference,” he said.

John Williams of Still Hope Productions is filming Hirschi’s field trips with local students to add a digital feature to Hirschi’s book.

“One thing I’m working on is to document specific species in the [local] marine ecosystem, and now the connecting pieces,” Williams said. “This piece of the puzzle connects [viewers] to an underwater world you don’t get to see.”

Dogfish Creek is a nursery, a “daycare” for salmon, Hirschi said. Recently, he’s seen lampreys and cutthroat trout, indicators the watershed’s health is being restored.

“When [these] four-year-olds are seven, they’ll be able to come here and see the fish they helped return,” Hirschi said. He plans to write two more books, following the salmon’s journey into Liberty Bay and out into the ocean, and their return journey to spawn new baby salmon.

Hirschi once worked with Suquamish Elementary, and one of its former students remembers his lessons about the salmon. Hailey Cunca, a former Suquamish Elementary student, is now a Martha & Mary preschool teacher.

“A lot of us are unaware the creeks [have] fish,” Cunca said. “[The children] can share it, and that’s been our proof this has been a great experience with them.”

She remembers visiting Dogfish Creek in first grade to catch salmon eggs. The students grew the eggs in a tank in the school library until the fish were ready to be released.

“It’s an amazing experience to watch them grow, and go back and see what’s happened, what’s changed,” she said.

“I really hope that for these kids, they go back [and see] the fish are growing, and grasp that understanding [better] than what I can just explain to them.” The children then tell their friends, parents and families what they’ve been learning, and adults learn more about their community.

“Seeing the parents get excited … as a father, that means a lot to me,” Hirschi said. “I can see parents that care.”

The south fork of Dogfish Creek flows through the Poulsbo Village shopping center, and Hirschi said village management has been very helpful in restoring the stream. He said two years ago, they removed non-native plants and village businesses have kept the stream clear of trash.

Hirschi said he will continue to improve the stream by planting cedar and willow trees, which are not only good for the stream but are beautiful to look at.

After working with children for 33 years, Hirschi said he feels children today are more knowledgeable about these scientific subjects.

“People are far more conscientious now about the environment,” he said.

Hirschi has worked with Paul Dorn and other employees in the Suquamish Tribe, Patrick Allen of North Kitsap Trout Unlimited, and businesses like Poulsbo Village and Central Market to restore Dogfish Creek.

He said he has a lot of summer projects coming up in which volunteers can help, from wetland restoration to tree planting. One of Hirschi’s ideas is to turn neighborhood detention ponds, which hold stormwater runoff, into living wetlands.

“I’m not starting something, I’m kind of reigniting some of the interest,” he said.

“As Poulsbo grows, keeping the ecosystem functioning is a major challenge. To make this work, we need to learn to share a common vision of the future health of [local] streams.”

To volunteer, contact Hirschi at whalemail@waypoint.com or visit www.ronhirschi.com.

 

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