Since 2009, barring a pandemic interruption, Yancey County, N.C. fifth-grade students have come out to the South Toe River to learn about the river from experts and personal exploration. In 2010, the opportunity was expanded to neighboring Mitchell County, where students have traditionally visited the North Toe River.
Dubbed “Toes in the Toe” after the names of the rivers, the event was the brainchild of Service staff and local residents looking to connect area students with streams in their community, which are home to the endangered Appalachian elktoe mussel and the Eastern hellbender, an aquatic salamander currently under consideration for Endangered Species Act protections.
Students spend the day rotating through educational stations that explore different facets of streams, stream life, and local agriculture. Given the streams’ importance for the Appalachian elktoe mussel, the Service has traditionally staffed a station focused on aquatic invertebrates, having students collect and identify invertebrates, then use that information to draw a basic conclusion about stream health. Service staff also assist with the fish station, working with students to collect and identify fish and discuss what the fishes collected say about stream health.
For the first time, the Mitchell County event was moved from the North Toe River to tributary streams close enough to local elementary schools to allow students to walk to the event, cutting out the need for bus transportation.