At dusk on the Cosumnes River last week, a group of teenagers paddled their canoes under a bridge and then heard some squeaks and flaps above them. Curious, the paddlers looked up, and in the next few minutes, witnessed the fly-out of clouds of bats as they emerged for their night flights.
“I couldn’t believe it, I’d never seen a bat before,” said Ariane Buckenmeyer, 17, one of the paddlers. “What looked like tens of thousands of them were right above us. We were all bewildered, to be honest, yet it was incredible. We didn’t know you could see such a thing. We were speechless, in our canoes, staring at all the bats in the sky.”
The bats darted in pirouettes and dipsy doos as they used echolocation, where they bounce ultrasonic sound waves off flying insects, to track their prey. A dusk fly-out is one of the great spectacles of summer. This group of paddlers had a perfect view as part of a nature-based program for youth.
Buckenmeyer is one of 150 students, mostly young women in high school, who are taking part in an outdoors science and recreation program this summer in 27 states across America, sponsored by The Nature Conservancy. It is called “LEAF,” which stands for “Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future.” In its 20th year, about 700 young people have completed the program and more than 30 percent have gone on to pursue environmental careers.
They merge outdoors fun with science and conservation fieldwork. This past week, for instance, they kayaked to Fannette Island at Emerald Bay at Lake Tahoe and then canoed the Cosumnes River near Galt in the San Joaquin Valley. In the process, they also checked Lake Tahoe water clarity, removed invasive plants from the Consumnes River Preserve, surveyed and plotted native plant distribution, and amid drought, examined the health of nearby Costello Forest. They also visited several colleges, including UC Davis and UC Santa Cruz.
This coming week, they’ll head to the Dye Creek Preserve east of Red Bluff, the Land of Ishi, California’s last wild Indian, to explore Native American sites in canyons that include acorn bedrock mortars in cave hollows. Then they’ll head to the high Sierra and Independence Lake and its feeder streams to kayak, camp and explore the protected habitat of the rare Lahontan cutthroat trout.
“I grew up in the city,” Buckenmeyer said. “I haven’t traveled much. A lot of us don’t know about wildlife outside of the city or what was here before (it was settled). In high school, there hasn’t been much of an emphasis on the environmental sciences.
“My first time camping was last fall,” she said. “It was eye-opening. It was incredible. I’ve never had so much fun. I found out I love backpacking, the wild environment, with no sight of human civilization. We had to get used to the idea of hearing the coyotes howling at night. And there were so many stars. We just stared at all the stars.”
The Nature Conservancy, a non-political organization that buys and protects unique habitats and then provides leave-no-trace public access to them, pays for group’s overhead.
The outdoor experience has had a big effect on her view of the world, Buckenmeyer said.
“We have responsibilities as humans,” she said. “There are beautiful environments that are slowly being destroyed. We need to promote environmental advocacy.”
One way to do that, says Brigitte Griswold, The Nature Conservancy’s Director of Youth Programs, is to improve environmental and outdoor education.
The program could be a template for schools across America, especially for young women, which are under-represented in science fields.
“We try to provide that ‘A-Ha Moment,’ where a young person experiences something they haven’t seen before or even imagined” to get them hooked, Griswold said.
“There’s very few women in the science fields,” known as “STEM” and stands for “Science, Technology, Engineering, Math,” she said
“We’re trying to expose young people to careers in natural sciences before they decide their colleges. We can’t wait until they get to college. Four out of five STEM students decide their majors in high school or earlier.”
In addition, jobs in environmental science are expected to grow by 25 percent in the next two years, the fastest among any field of science, Griswold said.
Preparing for her senior year of high school, Buckenmeyer is a testament to the program: a bright young woman, with clear brown eyes, a zest for life and an engaging natural curiosity for all things in nature, who will decide her life’s course, college and field of study in the coming year. Right now she’s leaning toward becoming a wildlife biologist.
She has her hobbies, of course – “I like playing my guitar, a Stratocaster” – and after being exposed to nature, she finds herself drawn back, out of the city, over and over.
“I love going down to the tidepools,” she said, “I go every chance I get.”
For more information, go to www.nature.org/leaf.
Tom Stienstra is The San Francisco Chronicle’s outdoors writer. E-mail: email@example.com. Daily twitter at: @StienstraTom
National youth survey
Key findings from the National survey of American Youth, conducted Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz and Associates, funded by The Nature Conservancy, The Toyota USA Foundation and the Foundation for Youth Investment:
Computer time: 88 percent of American youth say they spend time on-line every day.
TV/video games: 69 percent play video games or watch TV with the same level of frequency.
Homework: Most American youth, 58 percent, spends more time on the computer, playing video games or watching TV, than they do on homework or studying for school.
Outdoors: Fewer than 40 percent of American youth participate in hiking, fishing, hunting, or visiting a park, beach or natural area once a week.
Nature rating: 51 percent rate the condition of nature as a “very serious” problem.
Blame parents: 73 percent of youth say previous generations have damaged the environment and left the problems for them to fix.
No faith in government: 33 percent believe that government is doing a good job addressing problems that face our country.
Meaningful: 66 percent of youth say they have had a personal experience in nature that made them appreciate it more.
Optimism: Those who have had a special experience in nature are twice as likely to spend time outdoors, significantly more likely to express concern about the condition of the environment, twice as likely to strongly agree that protecting the environment is “cool,” and substantially more likely to study the environment in college.