MOIESE VALLEY — Scott Kiser brandished a bouquet of bright yellow flowers in front of a group of fourth-graders. “If we’re backpacking up in Glacier Park and you see these flowers up on the trail, you guys want to pick 'em?”
“No!” chorused the group from the K. William Harvey Elementary School in Ronan.
Good answer. “You always want to just leave” flowers unpicked, Kiser told them.
He and Connie Plaissay, his colleague at Mission Valley Backcountry Horsemen, ran one of 22 presentation stations at the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ annual River Honoring. Over Tuesday and Wednesday, roughly 1,000 local fourth- and fifth-graders received lessons on the culture, history and science surrounding the Flathead River — and how they can preserve it.
“We depend on the river for everything, and everything depends on the river,” said Stephanie Gillin, who coordinated this year's event. The tribes first hosted a River Honoring alongside the Flathead in 1986. Since 1994, it’s been an education-focused event for area students.
Gillin’s been involved with the River Honoring for 17 years. Previously, she presented to students as a tribal wildlife biologist. Now, as the tribal Natural Resources Department's new information and education program manager, she's the one organizing it.
“I think it’s grown in popularity and (in) the importance of it to the students,” she said.
Twenty-two tepees had been set up in two loops in a valley floor beside the Lower Flathead River near Moiese. Student groups rotated among the stations, moving on to the next one at the sound of a drum circle’s song. As Renee Kelch’s fourth-grade students took their seats at the backcountry horsemen’s station, the teacher explained why she’s been bringing students here for 20 years.
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“I just think it’s such an educational day,” she said. “The kids are learning about our area and the reservation.”
“In fourth grade we cover Montana history," Kelch explained, and she values this event’s guest speakers and hands-on instruction.
Kiser and Plaissay went over Leave No Trace conservation principles, backcountry bathroom etiquette, sharing the trail with horseback riders, and the proper use of bear spray, with Kiser aiming a training can at a growling Plaissay.
“Me and him have been doing it about 10 years,” Kiser said afterwards, “You never know what you’re gonna hear from the kids.”
Other stations gave the students a chance to shoot fire hoses from a backcountry water tender; watch a dugout cedar canoe slowly taking shape; and learn about skull identification, the river’s hydrology and the threat posed by zebra mussels and other aquatic invasive species.
That last lesson made an impression on Ronan fourth-grader Amanda Courville. “So far I loved it down at the mussel one,” she said. “I never thought about floaties” being able to carry the aquatic invaders.
She also enjoyed the backcountry horsemen’s camping lesson. “They were so funny,” she said.
Standing beside the turquoise river, on a crisp spring day, she said, “I love it here. It’s also really pretty.”