Sanders County Waterfest was damp and fun.

Not often do I get the chance to spend much of a day with a bunch of 11-year-olds. Not often enough, anyway. But when I do, it’s a blessing and a lesson and a bunch of fun all rolled into one.

My most recent chance was Tuesday, October 4, and the opportunity was presented by Green Mountain Conservation District, the Sanders County, Montana, agency which was organized in 1941 as one of 58 conservation districts in Montana. The main function of GMCD is to promote conservation of natural resources. The primary activity of the board is to administer Montana’s Natural Streambed and Land Preservation Act. These duties include education and to that end, Green Mountain organizes each year — beginning in 2004 — the Sanders County Waterfest.

Admittedly, not everyone paid attention all the time.
Admittedly, not everyone paid attention all the time.

Waterfest brings all of the fifth grade in Sanders County to Thompson Falls State Park for Waterfest, a connected series of “teaching moments” set up as six stations along the Clark Fork River where the kids learn about water and it’s place in our world. The kids and their escorts (teachers and high school kids from the Thompson Falls High School environmental club) spend 30 minutes at each station learning about fish, wildlife, forests, weeds and watershed.

Friends of Scotchman Peaks was invited to participate this year, and after a couple of false starts and a look at the weather (60 percent chance of rain), it became apparent that what would be best was something that would keep the kids bunched up and under cover. Out of that thought came a short tour of the Clark Fork watershed featuring 6 hand-drawn maps (one for each session) with the major streams and a variety of towns located but unnamed. At the outskirts of the map, the major drainages that butt up against the Clark Fork were noted. I drew in no roads. My intention was to get them to find their home town and then go from there in naming the features of the watershed so they might understand how big it is and how it works.

One example of the "after" maps.
One example of the "after" maps.

After spending most of the previous day getting ready, and then, with the help of Jean Dunn of GMCD and volunteer Jackie, setting up at the park with a couple of canopies and  an extra tarp that I hoped would keep things dry, it was with trepidation that I awaited my first group. What, I thought, if they don’t get it, or even care? What if they just stand there and stare at me? And, worst, what if it rains so hard we all dissolve.

I shouldn’t have worried. Over the next four hours, I had a great time as the kids pored and pointed and gestured and guessed and made some very definitive answers about the content of the maps. It was both gratifying and somewhat maddening that the adults got involved enough to doing so not-so-subtle verbal coaching from the sidelines, too.

The kids came from all over the county — Dixon to Noxon to Hot Springs — and one of the first things I would ask them to do is show on the map where their town is. There were some wild guesses, but there were also some right-on answers, and once they could see where they lived, they were very good at filling out the rest of the map.

We didn’t get a lot of opportunity to talk about wilderness specifically, but we did have opportunity to talk about place and learn how connected we are by our water. I hope they came away from the FSPW table with a better understanding of how our natural world works, and what their home watershed looks like and where they fit into the picture.

One of the lessons for me was that the fifth grade in Sanders County, Montana, is in good hands, with teachers who care about what they do and how they do it. The kids were rambunctious, of course, but also respectful, curious and eager to learn. It was a good day. And, it did rain, but not hard enough to dissolve us or even make my tarp and canopy combo leak.

Thanks to the Green Mountain Conservation District for putting this together, and I look forward to next year’s Sanders County Waterfest.

— Sandy Compton

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Categories: Blog
About The Author:

Sandy Compton has been program coordinator for Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness since 2009. He is also a storyteller and author of both fiction and non-fiction books, and the publisher at

In addition to his other duties, he runs the FSPW All Star Trail Team (, which works on Forest Service trails in the Scotchman Peaks. He is a trail surveyor as well, and a C-Certified Crosscut Bucker/Feller and USFS National Saw Policy OHLEC instructor.

Sandy grew up on a small farm/woodlot at the south end of the proposed wilderness and lives there still. He is also board member of the National Wilderness Stewardship Alliance and a planning team member for the Northern Rockies Wilderness Skills Institute.

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  1. An excellent adventure!

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