In the heart of Spruce Pine, N.C. the historic downtown is perched on one side of the North Toe River, while Riverside Park sits on the other, integrating the river into the heart of the community. It’s here, at Riverside Park, where fifth grade students from across the county converge every September for the Toes in the Toe Festival, an opportunity for local students to explore the North Toe River.
Over the course of the event, students rotate through a series of stations focused on the river and stream stewardship. Each station uses a different educational medium to match diverse student interests, but the common objective of each station is to promote stewardship of the community’s streams. Penland School of Craft leads an art station, with the student’s work going on display at the local grocery store. A fish station teaches students about fish of the North Toe River.
The Service staffs the aquatic invertebrate station each year, as the river is home to the Appalachian elktoe, protected by the Endangered Species Act since 1994. At the station, students learn what an aquatic invertebrate is and what this group of animals tells us about stream health, having the opportunity to see and identify animals collected from the North Toe River itself. While they may not gain a deep understanding of how to use stream life as a gauge of stream health, some likely leave the station with fun facts - like how dragonfly larvae can flee predators by squirting water out their butts - and hopefully all taking home positive memories of their river field trip.
The event is more than ten years old, but this year, weather complicated plans, with low morning temperatures preventing some students from wading the river, and the looming threat of Hurricane Ian leading to the cancellation of the event’s second day.