Wild about the wetlands


Staff writer

As almost 20 second-graders filed into the cabin at Camp Kilworth, backpacks hoisted on their shoulders and brown paper bags filled with lunch, a little boy’s voice rose above the din.

“Are there video games?” he asked.

“No, no video games,” an instructor replied.

“No video games?!” he cried, feigning shock and dismay.

Students in Mrs. Hillis’ Star Lake Elementary School class arrived by yellow school bus at Camp Kilworth, a Boy Scouts day camp site in Federal Way, Tuesday morning last week to learn about the life cycle of salmon and how pollution seeps into the water and damages the habitat for fish and the ecosystem for everyone.

Friends of the Hylebos, a local non-profit agency committed to preserving the wetland and educating the public about the ecosystem, offers the weekly field trips to second-graders each spring. The Pacific Harbor Boy Scouts Council helps teach and makes the cabin available to the students.

The fledgling program, the brainchild of state Rep. Skip Priest (R-Federal Way), a Friends of the Hylebos activist, is wildly popular. The schedule for next year — the third the program will be offered — filled up within a week.

One goal of the program is to introduce children to their local watershed and “try to establish some sort of connection to the natural environment,” said Chris Carrel, executive director of Friends of the Hylebos.

Another goal is to teach children “the value of a healthy environment in terms of their quality of life and how they can influence water quality for good or bad,” he said. “If nothing else, they get to experience the wetlands and I think that’s a good thing.”

It’s such a good thing that Friends of the Hylebos is hoping to reach even more kids with the program.

Since Federal Way Public Schools superintendent Tom Murphy proposed cutting the district’s fifth-grade outdoor education program as part of $6 million in school budget cuts next year, Carrel said Friends of the Hylebos is considering expanding the program and offering it to the district’s fifth-graders.

Last Tuesday morning, Carla Milesi, Friends of the Hylebos stream team coordinator, and Katy Chamberlain, a Friends conservation assistant, split the kids into two groups of nine.

One group went outside to learn about evaporation, precipitation and pollution and, after several irresistible distractions provided by tent caterpillars, got to pick grass and moss and find rocks to put into a sieve to demonstrate the filtering affects of a wetland.

Inside, Milesi sprinkled colored sugar — the candy smell of which wasn’t lost on the second-graders, who leaned in to sniff each new layer — on a hard plastic model of a neighborhood, complete with a construction site, houses, an office building, a clear-cut area and an agricultural field and associated vehicles.

To show how pesticides, fertilizer and loose dirt end up in the waterways, she sprayed water from a squirt bottle over the model to simulate rain. The kids watched as the dark water ran down the model streets and hills, through the tiny drainage systems into the stream and, ultimately, Puget Sound.

After a brown-bag lunch and a few minutes of playing in the sun at the camp site, the kids climbed back into the bus and rode to West Hylebos State Park. There, they clamored along the boardwalk and chattered about things they saw (or thought they saw, instructors pointed out), like ducks, slugs, logs, turtles and fish.

One boy was convinced he saw tadpoles swimming in a stagnant pool at the base of the tree. His classmates knelt next to him, eyes wide and mouths agape, and pointed at the tiny squirming creatures swimming in the water.

Carrel said enthusiastic feedback Friends of the Hylebos receives from parents, teachers and children shows the program is a success. Kids frequently write letters or draw pictures of snakes and turtles or other things they saw when they walked through the park.

Ultimately, Carrel said, Friends hopes the kids will grow up with a sense of environmental community.

“Environmental issues are one of the most important issues we as a society face. Our quality of life is determined in large part by the health of the environment,” he said. “It’s important our future leaders get a sense of what the local environment connection is to quality of life.”

Staff writer Erica Jahn: 925-5565,

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