Kids in the Creek Students Get a Surprise Visitor!

On the last school day before Spring Break, dozens of Rugby Middle School students got a rare treat. Instead of staring out the classroom window and counting the hours until Summer vacation, the 8th graders were out in the early spring sunshine at the annual Kids in the Creek event learning about river ecosystems and water quality.

MountainTrue’s Water Quality Administrator, Jack Henderson, joined representatives from the 12 other organizations to staff the three-day event, and was there on the last day when something amazing happened. A group of students were in the river, carefully turning over rocks to find aquatic insects and other critters — usually tiny larvae of stoneflies, dragonflies and an occasional small minnow. One of the students yelled out to the group “I found a salamander!”, holding up a bucket, but no one was expecting what he had found. It was indeed a salamander, but not one of the small, common ones. He had found a young Eastern Hellbender, the exceedingly rare giant salamander that lives in clear, healthy streams of the Southern Appalachians and can grow up to 2.5 feet in length! Though this one was smaller than the size of a hand.

This is the furthest downstream that a Hellbender has been spotted in the Mills River. Photo credit: Haley Smith, Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy

This is the furthest downstream that a Hellbender has been spotted in the Mills River. Photo credit: Haley Smith, Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy.

The experts on site were shocked and excited to see a Hellbender at that location. It was the furthest downstream that a Hellbender has been documented in the Mills River. The fact that a Hellbender is thriving in the main branch of the Mills is a testament to the decades of work by MountainTrue and many others in the area to protect water quality from pollution threats.

The kids thought it was pretty cool too, and likely won’t soon to forget their rare sighting of a creature few in these mountains ever get to lay eyes on.

In total, almost 300 students visited six different stations where they had hands-on opportunities to test the chemical parameters of the river, survey the stream and collect aquatic life, properly identify macroinvertebrates, test soil samples, learn more about the process of water filtration for drinking water, and even play a game where students were able to “be” aquatic life.

Kids in the creek sampling the river's macro-invertebrates.

Kids in the Creek sampling macro-invertebrates. Photo credit: Micaela Hyams of RiverLink.

The event was made possible by volunteers who gave over 250 hours of service and all the event partners: Henderson County Soil & Water Conservation District, NC Wildlife Commission, City of Hendersonville, City of Asheville, Mills River Parks and Recreation, MountainTrue, Mills River Partnership, Farm Service Agency, Natural Resource Conservation Service, Rugby Middle School, Riverlink, Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, and Mountain Horticulture Research Station.

After everyone got a chance to see the Hellbender, it was released back to the Mills River where we hope it will grow and thrive. If you want to help protect its habitat and the waters we all need and love, consider donating or volunteering to support MountainTrue’s water quality work today!

Western North Carolina is blessed with more than 1.5 million acres of public land, including Nantahala-Pisgah National Forest, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway and several state-owned parks, forests and natural areas. These public lands support the headwaters of our rivers, beautiful mountain vistas, one of the most diverse temperate forests on the planet, and a thriving economy in tourism, crafts and recreation.
During its 30-year history, WNCA (now MountainTrue) has twice prevented logging in the Asheville Watershed, first in 1990 and again in 2004. Eventually the City of Asheville placed a conservation easement over 17,356 acres of the watershed.