On board the Snow Goose, a crop of Mount Baker High School biology students pull a net filled with organisms, sediments and more from Bellingham Bay. They pour the samples into Petri dishes and search for zooplankton, phytoplankton, worms, fish eggs, jellyfish and larvae beneath a microscope, laughing and cringing at the tiny critters in the water.
Out on the bow, another group pulls water from the surface, at 3 meters deep and 6 meters deep. They test the temperature, salinity and pH to determine the turbidity of the water. Off the stern, more students pull more water samples and test the water for oxygen levels.
The Snow Goose cycles around the bay, stopping at the mouth of Whatcom Creek, then the mighty Nooksack River and finally Padden Creek, just offshore from Taylor Dock, allowing students to see the impacts of different waterways on the bay.
For the last three decades, the Snow Goose has taken hundreds of Whatcom County students out in the spring and fall, when it isn’t traversing Alaskan waters in the summer. Captain Dan Liden estimates he and his crew do about 50 field trips and take 1,300 students out onto the bay each year.
At the end of the day, freshman Karalyn Cook said she liked the microscopes “because you get to see all the living organisms in the water.”
Others tittered about how they loved testing samples, being on the water and getting the chance to drive the boat, dodging the odd kayaker or crab pot, and even doing a donut.
In the 16 years he has owned the boat, Liden said he’s grown the program and funded it half through the schools and half through a private donor. In total, he said it costs about $70,000 to pay for moorage, insurance, crew hours, fuel and all the many other boat-related expenses to run the field trips in the shoulder season.
However, with budget cuts at schools across the county, Liden said this season will likely be his last on the water with students. He said he received notice that many local schools cannot afford to pay for future trips aboard the Snow Goose. Without the regular stream of trips, he cannot afford to bring the boat out for the sporadic, occasional field trip. He and his crew need steady work, so he’ll be forced to find it elsewhere.
For Liden, who is a former middle school teacher, it’s not just a personal loss, but a loss for the community.
“That’s sad to see that kids that live near the water won’t get that experience,” he said.
Liden said the field trips enabled him to coordinate discounted trips with other local institutions, like Western Washington University and Whatcom Community College, but those will likely end, too.
Mount Baker High School science teacher Holly Koon has taken trips aboard the Snow Goose for nearly the last decade and is frustrated by the impending loss of the field trip and the partnership with Liden and his crew.
“The money always comes back in a couple years, but it’s not like it pauses at where we are, and when it comes back then we grow again. It completely falls apart in these bust cycles,” she said. “When the Snow Goose is gone, the Snow Goose is gone.”
Koon said she is sad to lose the experience for students and loves the way their faces light up while working onboard the boat. For many students, it’s a view they haven’t seen before and a type of hands-on learning that engages them in a way a classroom cannot.
“I would say a third of my kids have never been to the water or the mountain, and so we try to provide that place-based awareness,” she said. “It makes real what we talk about in the classroom.”
Place-based learning is at the center of the trip. Students study the water and ecosystems around them while getting geography lessons on the region and how Mount Baker connects to the bay.
Koon also noted the value of students and the community understanding the world they exist in.
“I think that sense of disconnectedness from this place that you exist in is an existential crisis,” she said. “I feel like the more you see yourself in this place and grounded in this place and have knowledge of this place — that’s really profound from a mental health perspective.”