From the press release:
A pair of fifth-grade students pulled the small net out of the North Toe River, anxiously peering into it.
Their anticipation was met by a half-inch long stonefly crawling among the sand and gravel caught in the mesh. Stoneflies are one of three types of insects whose presence and diversity is used to gauge stream health.
Similar scenes played out repeatedly over the course of four days, as nearly every fifth-grade student in Yancey and Mitchell counties had a chance to learn about the rivers in their community as part of the annual Toe River Valley Festival held September 15, 16, 22, and 23.
“Mitchell and Yancey Counties really do have some incredible streams. This festival opens up those streams to kids. Some kids have long fished these waters, some have never gotten their toes wet in them – this program gives all of the kids a chance to get outside for a day, and hopefully broaden their world a little, whether that’s doing art or donning waders and learning about what lives in the river,” said Starli McDowell, one of the event organizers, president of Toe River Valley Watch, and Mitchell County native.
Over two days students from Yancey County elementary schools came to Patience Park on the South Toe River and spent the day rotating through stations that included a nature walk, art, solar energy, outdoor games, watershed health, and a water bug safari. All the stations were geared to used games and interactive, hands-on activities, to teach the children about the river ecosystem and local watershed, including a chance to wade the stream catching crayfish and other invertebrates. The students were also entertained by local musicians and storytellers.
Mitchell County students shared a similar experience in the North Toe River at Spruce Pine’s Riverside Park, though rain forced the second day of the event inside. In place of a nature walk and outdoor games, Mitchell County students participated in a session on rocks and minerals and a session about the food chain.
“We’ve really worked hard to make this a community endeavor and it’s beginning to pay off as we get support from local artists, farmers, and even cookie bakers,” said Jade Pierce, one of the event organizers.
The educational event, now in its fourth year, is sponsored by local group Toe River Valley Watch and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Support was also provided by RiverLink, the Toe River Arts Council, High Peaks Trail Association, Sundance Power Systems, the National Park Service, Green Toe Ground Farm, Yummy Mud Puddle, N.C. Natural Heritage Program, N.C. Division of Water Quality, the Mountain Heritage High School Eco-Club, Arthur Morgan School, Tri-County Christian School, Yancey Graphics, artists Anna Vislocky and Raven Tata, and storytellers Fred Park and Sam Merin.
The streams of the Toe River Valley are home to the endangered Appalachian elktoe mussel and local interest in the streams’ well-being has increased in recent years as they become recognized as an economic resource supporting paddling and fishing industries.