A school bus loaded with fourth-graders drove through a field of knee-high grass on Tuesday to reach the banks of the Carson River.
More than 80 students from Gardnerville Elementary School participated in the Conserve the Carson River Education Work Days, this year held along a stretch of the East Fork between Westwood Village and Muller Lane.
"It's important for the kids to be connected to the environment, and to be connected in a way that they care for it," said River Wranglers Coordinator Linda Conlin, who organizes the event. "Especially today with kids being indoors so much, having an outdoor experience in nature can be life-changing."
Tony Smokey of the Washoe Tribe said a prayer before the work began.
"I'm praying for the river, the air, the land and water, for the bears, deer, rabbit and everything in this Valley that's here for us," he said.
The students were then divided into groups led by Douglas High School agricultural students. The groups rotated between five work stations: bioengineering, water chemistry, watershed habitat, the water cycle and insect life.
Paul Pugsley, watershed coordinator for the Carson Valley Conservation District, showed students how to make willow bundles, cutting limbs off nearby willows and tying them together, six per bundle.
"Willows have a unique property. If you cut off and bury any part of the plant, it will grow new roots," he said.
Students dug a trench perpendicular from the river in which they planted the bundles.
"The secret is to make sure the bottom of the bundle is in water," Pugsley said. "Willows need more water than most plants."
He pointed to the far bank across the river where a willow bush bordered the water.
"Willows hold the bank in place and keep it from washing away," he said.
Douglas High junior Aaron Leising helped students cut the willows.
"If we teach them about the river, then hopefully they will pass on what they learn to next generations," he said.
"This is teaching me a lot about plants," said 9-year-old Sophia Colella. "The water is important. It keep the animals alive."
Desiree Lehrke, also 9, said she was having fun.
"I never knew that willows need lots of water," she said. "I get to learn about that."
At another station, Douglas High junior Max Van Pelt was helping students gather river water to analyze.
"The water is really clear," he said. "There are rocks everywhere, and they clean the water that flows over them."
After a series of tests, students concluded that the river water had zero turgidity, a pH of 8, and a temperature of 15 degrees Celsius.
"It's pretty healthy," said 9-year-old Rosealee Rieman. "I think if you were stranded here, you could probably drink it."
Smokey told students about Native Americans and their relationship with the river.
"I'm teaching them about the tribal history of the Valley, about our staple foods and what it was like to survive," he said.
He gave students maps of the Carson River watershed, which had pictures of animals that depend on the river.
Dan Kaffer, development coordinator for Western Nevada Resource Conservation, was dressed like a mountain man to teach students about pioneer life. He wore a leather shirt and skunk hat and carried a hatchet and musket.
"The pioneers came west looking for beaver fur, but there were no regular beavers on the Carson River." he said. "Instead, they found gold and silver."
Kaffer held up pelts of different animals who depend on the river. The largest pelt belonged to a mountain lion.
"Mountain lions travel up and down the river every night," he said.
Smokey led students in a Native American song. They joined hands and danced in a circle.
"It's pretty awesome," said 9-year-old Shelby Rhodes, who was experiencing the river for the first time. "I like the water."
Conserve the Carson River Education Work Days were started in 1995. This year's event was made possible by a grant from the Carson Water Subconservancy District. Soroptimist International of Carson Valley organized parking and served students breakfast and lunch.