AVERY ISLAND, La. – The Marsh Maneuvers 4-H summer camp is in its 25th year of teaching students about the ecology, anthropology, geology and hydrology of coastal Louisiana.
For four weeks in July, 4-H students from different parishes attend a five-day camp at Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge to learn about the coastal environment and its precarious future.
On each Thursday of the camp, students plant marsh grass along Bayou Petit Anse near Avery Island. Even though they have to trudge through mud and silty water, it’s evident from the smiles on their muddy faces that they enjoy the experience.
Aleshia Mitcham, a freshman from Union Parish, said she surprised herself by enjoying planting marsh grass in mud and water. “It wasn’t bad. It was really fun. Every step, it got funner,” she said.
Mitcham will be relating what she learned at the camp to her classmates back home. “I’ll tell them about coastal erosion and what they can do to stop it.”She regretted that only a day remained at camp. “It feels like we’ve been here a month, but I want to stay longer,” she said.
Nikki Crain, a sophomore from Webster Parish, said the experience has been the highlight of her summer.
“It’s been great. I love it,” she said, still wet and muddy from the planting excursion. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Ranna Robinson, a student at Algiers Technical Academy in Orleans Parish, said her favorite part of the camp was catching fish and crabs, but she was enjoying her own personal discovery of the marsh.
“We’re learning all kinds of things we never knew,” she said.
Robinson said she is eager to tell fellow classmates about the experience. “I’m going to tell them I had an awesome time at 4-H camp.”
Kira Cates, a freshman from Union Parish, said she learned a wide variety of things about the coast. She said the only other time she had been to the state’s coastline was on a cruise ship, but she is now fond of the area. To her surprise, she even enjoyed planting marsh grass in waist-deep muddy water. “I loved it. I wanted to stay out there.”
During the five-day camp, Cates caught a gar and learned about subsidence of marsh, coastal erosion, different bird species and how to determine a fish’s age. “It’s all very new to me, and I’ve really enjoyed it.”
Carlo Bicciolo, of Rome, Italy, is a Rotary Club exchange student who participated in the camp. He said Italy has mountains, flatlands and hills, but he doesn’t know of any marshlands back home.
“I’ve been to camps before, but I’ve never swam in the mud,” he said.
Bicciolo appreciated being in a vast marshland. He lives in an apartment building in Rome.
“We’re not that close with nature. I’ve learned a lot,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about Cajuns.”
Mark Shirley, LSU AgCenter and Louisiana Sea Grant coastal resource specialist, has been conducting Marsh Maneuvers since it started. With funding help from the Youth Wetlands Program, Shirley conducts the classes and hands-on demonstrations. When he isn’t talking about the coast, he’s starting a game of volleyball or a spirited game of charades.
On Bayou Petit Anse, Shirley showed the students a canal dug decades ago where thick marsh grass was growing.
“Thanks to a bunch of kids like you, an unprotected shoreline is now restored,” Shirley told the group.
The next stop was to pull clumps of marsh grass from the mud to be replanted in eroding areas along the bayou. With time, the newly planted grass will spread.Shirley said Marsh Maneuvers first started as a summer camp experience only for Vermilion Parish 4-H junior leaders. “Then other parishes heard about it, and they wanted to do it,” he said.
The camp began at Grand Terre near Grand Isle at a Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries camp, which eventually became too dilapidated to use.
Marsh Maneuvers relocated west to Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge in 2004. Hurricane Rita hit the next year and damaged the facilities at Rockefeller, but repairs were made that allowed students to attend Marsh Maneuvers there in 2006, and the storm’s aftermath provided a learning experience for the camp, Shirley said.
The Chenier Plains region, where Rockefeller Refuge is, differs considerably from Grand Terre, Shirley said. The current location provides more opportunity to see marsh in the freshwater, brackish and saltwater areas.
Being able to see alligators at Rockefeller is another reason why the move was a good choice, Shirley said.
Students get a comprehensive overview of the coastal ecology, and they learn the marsh’s role in producing seafood and serving as a storm buffer and wildlife habitat. Shirley said the Marsh Maneuvers lessons also include information on the importance of the coast to oil and gas production and how different ethnicities have adapted to the coastal environment.
He estimates 1,600 students have gone through Marsh Maneuvers. Some of the earlier participants now have children who are now going through it, Shirley said.
He said because of Marsh Maneuvers, some former students went into careers in related fields such as biology and ecology.
For example, Twyla Harrington became a Louisiana Sea Grant agent, and Anna Normand is getting her doctorate degree in wetlands soil chemistry, Shirley said.
But even students who end up working in a non-related profession will benefit from what they experienced, Shirley said. “They will have an appreciation for the coast, and that carries on for the rest of their lives. We’re trying to create citizens who are aware of the coastal dilemma and what is occurring here.”Bruce Schultz
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