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With an overnight chill sinking water temperatures to 44 degrees, students who went snorkeling Monday in the Calapooia River southeast of Holley said they'd never been in a colder classroom.

But most of the 14 AP Biology students from Harrisburg High School said the experience was still worth having.

"You know, just accidentally fall down. You'll feel great," junior Jessica Ramirez, 16, urged her classmates as she crouched in her wetsuit in the frigid ripples. "You guys, just go for it. It's not that bad!"

The snorkeling field trip is the third so far this school year sponsored by the Calapooia Watershed Council, which formed a partnership with the U.S. Forest Service for the effort. West Albany High School and Memorial Middle School students also came out this fall, and more trips are to be scheduled in the spring.

Funded through a grant from the Salmon Trout Advisory Committee and a donation made through The Nature Conservancy, "What's Underneath: Freshwater Snorkeling" is the first program of its kind west of the Rockies.

Students can read all kinds of textbooks about watershed health, biological diversity and conservation, but nothing takes the place of first-hand experience, said Kristen Daly, an education project manager for the Calapooia Watershed Council.

The idea is that experience will give the students a new perspective, Daly said. That in turn may spark curiosity, which leads to a search for knowledge, which, she hopes, will then prompt a sense of ownership and a desire for the area's protection.

"Once you immerse yourself in the water, it's a whole new world, really," she said.

To make full immersion possible, the watershed council used grants and donations to purchase 20 wetsuits of varying sizes and goggles and snorkel set s to go with them.

With permission from Weyerhaeuser, the council is bringing small groups of students to a site on the Calapooia about 12 miles southeast of the little community of Holley. 

Time in the river is spent looking for the types of critters that can be found — on this particular morning, students find snails, crayfish, tiny lampreys and one lonely sculpin — as well as observing their size, number and the environments in which they're found.

Really, however, the snorkeling is mostly about having fun with a new perspective, organizers said.

"You can see this stuff, you can read about it a thousand times," said Collin McCandliss, the council's executive director. "Once you stick your head in the water and see it — whoa." 

The Harrisburg students were game, lying prone in the shallows and peering through aquascopes to get a better view of the denizens below. But most couldn't stay submerged for long.

"So. Freaking. Cold," said junior Jonathan Lettekeman, sloshing toward shore. 

"That is freezing," agreed classmate Trever Dilley. "I couldn't feel my face."

The early field trip experiences are helping the council fine-tune the program, Daly said. Next on the to-purchase list: wetsuit gloves and hoods. 

"We've learned, really, this is going to be a September, early October field trip," she said. "This is really too cold even for the fish to be too active. But we learn lessons, and we move forward." 

Ramirez said she thought the experience was worth it. "It gets the students involved," she said. "Everything you learn in the class, you can finally see it out here."