Into the great wide open

Posted: March 23rd, 2018 | Features, Top Stories | No Comments

Jeff Clemetson | Editor

River Kids Discovery Days introduces nature to students

Despite being known as a destination for outdoor enthusiasts, San Diego is also home to children who lack access and opportunity to enjoy nature. However, programs like the San Diego River Park Foundation’s River Kids Discovery Days look to bridge that gap and offer every child a chance to enjoy the great outdoors.

“Our programs are really meant to provide those first-time experiences that make kids more comfortable in the outside, get them excited about the environment, excited about nature and excited about the San Diego River,” said Sarah Hutmacher, an associate director at the San Diego River Park Foundation (SDRPF).

Students from Whitman Elementary prepare to release trout guppies into Lake Murray during River Kids Discover Days. (Courtesy San Diego River Park Foundation)

On March 9 and 10, Hutmacher, other SDRPF members, volunteers and sponsors joined to put on the fourth annual River Kids Discovery Days, with events along the San Diego River in Mission Valley and at Lake Murray in La Mesa.

At Lake Murray, students from Whitman Elementary in North Clairemont and King Chavez Academy in Barrio Logan released several hundred rainbow trout into the lake. The students had been growing the fish from eggs in their classrooms for seven weeks.

“This is a fun event because kids have a chance to participate in real conservation. They receive trout eggs from the Department of Fish and Wildlife,” Hutmacher said. “They learn all about the fish life cycle. They learn about why conservationists like to raise trout and then restock areas that have been impacted and don’t have trout anymore. And they also learn about the recreational aspect of trout fishing from the San Diego Fly Fishers.”

At the Lake Murray event, volunteers from the San Diego Fly Fishers (SDFF) offered clinics to the young students on how to cast a fly rod. The group also helped the teachers and schools raise the trout by supplying and setting up the tanks needed to raise the fish and delivered the eggs from the Department of Fish and Wildlife to the classrooms.

A volunteer from San Diego Fly Fishers leads a casting demonstration. (Photo courtesy San Diego River Park Foundation)

SDFF conservation chairperson Gary Strawn said the group donates thousands of dollars a year to conservation projects like restoring the San Diego River headwaters as well as education projects like River Kids Discover Days. And there is never a short supply of volunteers for River Kids from the 300 members of SDFF.

“It’s just really a fun thing for us,” Strawn said. “You watch these kids and they’re so excited. A lot of them just don’t get to go outside or see a lake.”

In addition to the trout release and the fly fishing demo, students at the Lake Murray River Kids event also took water samples to study the trout food source — tiny invertebrates living in the water. There was also an art project painting with rubber stamps shaped like fish.

Art projects took a more central role for the River Kids events held in Mission Valley. On March 9, SDRPF partnered with Art FORM for a day of fun projects at the San Diego River Garden, located along the river about half a mile from the Dave and Busters restaurant/arcade. Sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students from the Museum School in Bankers Hill combined art, science, and gardening by painting new labels for the native plants in the garden, creating a mosaic wren sculpture and dissecting native flowers to make scientific nature illustrations.

“That was science, learning about the anatomy of flowers, then observing in nature what the native flowers look like,” said SDRPF community engagement officer Ally Welborn.

The students also helped with some gardening by “removing invasive plants, which is a fancy way of saying ‘weeding’ and doing some trimming, clearing trails, general beautification work,” Welborn said. “River Kids is an annual event where we focus on empowering youth and getting them involved in community service and getting them to take ownership of green spaces in the community.”

On March 10, a small number of River Kids Discovery Days participants braved the rain for the final activities. The Saturday program was open to the public and not affiliated with schools and was comprised of families interested in the river.

The Saturday activities took place along the San Diego River Trail, where the river intersects with Qualcomm Way. Families tested river water quality, looked at plankton under a microscope, created a public education poster promoting water quality and took a nature walk with SDRPF river ecosystem manager Shannon Quigley Raymond.

There was a total of 14 River Kids Discovery Days activities all along the San Diego River, completed with the help of over 20 partner agencies and organizations, as well as sponsors SDG&E, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Jimbo’s…Naturally, and San Diego Kiwanis.

Students takes water samples to look for “water bugs” that trout feed on in Lake Murray. (Courtesy SDRPF)

River Kids Discovery Days is held once a year, but there are other opportunities for families to learn about and help protect the river area, Welborn said. There are ongoing events at the San Diego River Garden that are open to the public twice a month, on the second and fourth Sundays from 9-11 a.m. And on the third Friday in Santee and the third Sunday in Mission Valley, volunteers who are age 14 and above can participate in water quality testing.

For more information on River Kids Discovery Days and other events by the San Diego River Park Foundation, visit

— Reach Jeff Clemetson at

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