Getting excited about nature at the Fish Ladder

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BELLOWS FALLS — The fish ladder in Bellows Falls is back up and running after being temporarily shut down after a pipe broke.

Staff from the The Nature Museum in Grafton are back welcoming children and families for their biweekly, one-hour programs. The programs are geared toward a younger audience, "but we welcome all," senior educator Jay DeGregorio said.

The Bellows Falls Fish Ladder has been in operation since the early 1980s.

"A fish ladder is an engineered structure that gives the fish a chance to bypass a dam," DeGregorio said, "in this case a hydro-electric dam."

Fish travel upstream to mate and lay eggs. Once the eggs hatch, some of the fish swim downstream again. Fish that might travel along the Bellows Falls Fish Ladder are the Atlantic salmon, American shad and the blueback herring. Other water creatures that migrate along the route are the sea lamprey and the American eel.

"All of those have their own behaviors in terms of how many will pass through here and when," DeGregorio said.

The Grafton Nature Museum has been at the fish ladder for several years. The museum gets a grant from Great River Hydro to operate a satellite museum at the fish ladder. This is its first year working with Great River Hydro.

"The fish ladder is basically a way to let the fish get past an obstruction," DeGregorio said. "Not every solution is perfect, but it's pretty great that it's here and that it's been in place for 30 years. Before the fish ladder, migration was impossible."

DeGregorio goes down to Bellows Falls every Friday, Saturday and Sunday and opens the Visitor Center from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

When he holds special programs the topics include wildlife fish, fall, "whatever we feel like would be exciting for the young kids to learn," DeGregorio said. When the staff isn't at the fish ladder, they travel to local libraries for 10 full weeks teaching similar programs.

DeGregorio believes programs like these engage young children and get them excited about science and the environment.

"Just to see their faces light up, and smile, and ask questions and really get into it," he said. "That's what I love about my work, and the Nature Museum loves about what we do. Just being that regional resource for environmental education to get kids interested."

Fish ladder frequenters tend to be a mix of tourists and local residents, he said.

"My favorite part is going down to the viewing windows with visitors and just seeing things," DeGregorio said. At the visitor center people can view the top of the fish ladder at a balcony attached to the first floor. Downstairs is a viewing room with two large windows that reveal the fish ladder underwater. DeGregorio loves the viewing windows because most people expect them to operate like aquariums with fish swarming the water. That's hardly the case.

"A lot of times, if you want to see a fish, depending on the day and the month, you might have to sit there for awhile," he said. "Some days it's very murky, so it's difficult."

But there are other creatures hiding within the depths of the water that DeGregorio likes to watch. He particularly enjoys water intersects or macroinvertebrates.

"You can see those all the time," he said. "It's really just another world that people don't know, and it's so important to those fish and everything else that we think of as being the bigger more exciting things to see."

He said there's always something to see,"whether it's a snail or a macroinvertebrate or maybe a fish."

"I think sometimes kids come here and think it will be like a fish bowl," he said. "I've never seen a kid come here and be really disappointed that they couldn't see a fish."

The fish ladder will be open until Sept. 3.

Harmony Birch can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext.153. Or you can follow her @birchharmony.

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