Credit: Gabor Degre | BDN

As her 20 second-graders hopped from rock to rock, picked up sticks and otherwise enjoyed a field trip away from Dedham School on Tuesday, teacher Beth Handley provided an appropriate description of her active pupils.

“Second-graders in the wild is like herding eels,” she said, keeping to the fish migration theme of the day.

The class, along with a seventh-grade class, had gathered at Sedgeunkedunk Stream to release tiny Atlantic salmon fry. The younger pupils had raised their salmon from eggs, and the day marked the end of a three-month process that takes place in classrooms around the state as part of the Atlantic Salmon Federation’s Fish Friends program.

“One of the jobs in the class is the critter caretaker, so they have to check on them and make sure they’re OK,” Handley said. “They check the temperature of the water.”

And they learned their lessons well.

Grayson Spalding, 7, explained the journey that the salmon fry faced after being released, one by one, into the stream.

“They start out here at the Segeunkedunk Stream, then they’re going to go to the Penobscot River. Then they’re going to go to the Atlantic Ocean for three to five years,” Spalding said. “Then they’re going to go back to the Penobscot River. And back here to lay eggs … it’s going to be like a cycle that goes over and over.”

This is the cycle, that is, if they’re successful. And that’s no guarantee.

Even getting to the stream was a challenge, as only 33 of 200 eggs raised in the classroom made it to their release date. The seventh-grade students released fish that were raised at Fields Pond Audubon Center, which had a higher success rate, according to Handley.

And those that were released had a fine sendoff.

The second-graders cheered when the first fish was released, and one girl waved goodbye.

“Go to the ocean!” another yelled. “Swim! Swim!”

And the entire class knew the life cycle by heart, reciting the various stages when prompted by their teacher: Fry. Parr. Smolt. Salmon.

“We did a whole unit on the life cycle of salmon, and we did posters on how to help save the salmon,” Handley said. “Three things that would hurt, and three things that would help. They got so passionate about it. ‘What? They used to log near there? They have erosion?’ They were adorable.”

Spalding’s list of things that would make things better for salmon: “Don’t litter, no oil spills and don’t overfish,” he said.

Kelsie Young, 8, explained the salmon’s role in a thriving ecosystem, and said their presence helps keep things in balance.

“They are really important to us because they eat smaller fish, so they don’t get too high, and we don’t get too low,” Young said.

She pointed at a nearby fishway as an example of things that can help salmon make their migration. The salmon fry that she released, however, didn’t seem too eager to begin its life in the wild.

“He tried to sit there [in my paper cup]. When I was dumping him and trying to get him out, he was just trying to stay in,” Young said. “I feel like he didn’t really want to leave. He left anyway.”

Then Young corrected herself.

“He or she. I don’t know,” she said with a laugh.

After everyone had released their fish into the stream, Handley rounded up her class, had them stand on a streamside rock, and say goodbye one more time.

“Hip, hip hooray for salmon!” they cheered.

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John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. He spent 28 years working for the BDN, including 19 years as the paper's outdoors columnist or outdoors editor. While...