Paint Creek is a prime destination for local outdoor enthusiasts. But seldom do they get to explore the watershed like seven kids from the Boys & Girls Club of Greeneville and Greene County did Tuesday.
Thanks to a unique opportunity provided by Mahoney's Outfitters, the USDA Forest Service and the Cherokee Chapter of Trout Unlimited - in conjunction with a grant from Patagonia Wholesale - the youngsters got to take part in the inaugural Cherokee National Forest Freshwater Snorkeling Program.
The activities took place at the Stephen Falls Picnic Area.
Marcia Carter, the Fisheries Biologist for the North Zone of the Cherokee National Forest, came up with the idea for the program. She was joined Tuesday by forest ranger Leslie Morgan, as well as other employees of the Unaka Ranger District of the Cherokee National Forest, who put on wet suits and led the kids on their snorkeling adventure.
"Hopefully this will spark an interest in these kids," Carter said. "There is one kid here today, I could definitely see him becoming a biologist."
"It's good for them to learn about the environment and how to be good stewards and appreciate it."
The Forest Service contingent spent the first hour not only going over safety information of both being in the National Forest and snorkeling in Paint Creek, but also shared educational information about the diverse assemblage of fish and other aquatic organisms that live in the area.
According to a press release, "in the clear waters of the snorkeling site, it is typical to see ten to fifteen species of fish on any given day."
The program was made possible thanks to a $1,500 grant from Patagonia - a company that Mahoney's buys product from - that was intended to fuel environmental work.
"Essentially, Mahoney's was contacted by Patagonia and they tasked me to pick a recipient of this 1,500 dollars," said Christy Buckles, representative for Mahoney's Outfitters in Johnson City.
"(Patagonia) is giving out grants that are environmentally based, that are supposed to go to groups in the local community that are environmentally-minded, are action oriented, and have educational proponents."
Buckles first became aware of some of the educational endeavors that the Cherokee Chapter of Trout Unlimited participates in when Mahoney's had a vendor booth set up at a film festival CCTU sponsored in Bristol earlier this year.
"I was looking at some of the stuff they had set up and learned about the trout-in-the-classroom program they do and other things," Buckles explained. "I talked to a lot of their members that day and thought, 'Wow, they would be perfect for the grant'."
Buckles went back to Mahoney's and shared her findings.
As it turned out, around the same time Trout Unlimited member Lori Paris had been in contact with Carter and the Forest Service about possibly collaborating for a snorkeling program.
"The three parties (Mahoney's, the Forest Service and Trout Unlimited) started talking with each other, and we started working together to get the grant approved and secure the equipment for the program," Buckles noted.
The Cherokee National Forest is divided into a North Zone and a South Zone, split by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Carter said the South Zone of the forest has been doing a youth snorkeling program for some time now, and everything just came together for the North Zone to implement one this year.
"We were talking to Trout Unlimited and they were talking to Mahoney's and it was just like it was meant to be," Carter said. "The grant helped tremendously, because we wouldn't have been able to do this without the additional funding."
"Today was an experimental thing but we hope to make it long term."
The Forest Service had already worked with the Boys & Girls Club prior to Tuesday.
"We went last week and we came out in the woods and collected snails and salamanders and talked about the forest," Carter explained.
"There are so many benefits. It's good for the kids to get out in nature - it's good for both their minds and bodies."
Boys & Girls Club members Marissa Keller, Miranda Keller, Alexis Henderson, Robert Freeman, Jr., Dominic Vine, Matthew Rose and Carson Hyder took part in Tuesday's program.
They were provided wet suits and snorkeling equipment and spent a couple of hours exploring the shallow waters of Paint Creek.
Buckles was in attendance to present members of Trout Unlimited and the Forest Service with the "symbolic" grant check prior to the activities getting started.
The following press release was announced at the Erin National Fish Hatchery in Erwin Tennessee on Monday May 11, 2015.
From Right: Ed Carter, Exec Director of TWRA; Bill Johnson, Pres/CEO of TVA (in Cherokee Chapter TU hat); Senator Lamar Alexander, R-TN; Mike Octker, SE Regional Director of US Fish and Wildlife Services; and Jeff Durniak, Georgia DNR
Although a written contract has not yet been finalized, a “Memorandum of Agreement” is being drafted by legal staff for signature by TVA and USFWS. The expected completion of this agreement is mid-summer 2015.