Outdoor education: In North Routt, ice fishing is part of the curriculum

North Routt Community Charter School eighth-grader Justin Muhlbauer lands a trout through his hole in the ice on Steamboat Lake on Friday. He claims that a fish he later hooked but could not get on the ice was even bigger. (Photo by Dylan Anderson)

CLARK — Eighth-grade students at North Routt Community Charter School in Clark traded in four walls and desks for snowsuits and ice fishing poles Friday as part of the school’s curriculum prioritizing outdoor appreciation.

On Steamboat Lake a little before noon, students were set up with holes in the roughly 2-foot-thick ice, bouncing their baits about a foot off the mucky bottom, hoping for a trout to come by and discover their bait to be appetizing.

Brandon LaChance, the school’s executive director, said on better weather days — it was overcast with some wind and the occasional snow shower — the lake would be pretty crowded, but on Friday, the students had it mostly to themselves. The trip is labeled as an outdoor education and wellness trip and aimed at promoting physical activity as well as learning to appreciate the environment.

“Every Friday we are out,” said Dan Kohler, eighth-grade teacher at the school. “We’re skiing a lot, cross-country skiing, that is kind of a go-to, so this is kind of a novelty.”

Jake Muhlbauer is fishing in his spot while Brandon LaChance, executive director of North Routt Community Charter School in Clark, gives a couple of students some tips about ice fishing in the ice house. (Photo by Dylan Anderson.)

The trips allow students to spend a longer amount of time doing an activity they are learning about in physical education classes during the week. Other grades in the school were also out Friday, with some cross-country skiing on some of the local North Routt County ranches and others learning about snow science.

“By the time they are eighth-graders, we try to break it up, because they have cross-country skied for nine years now, so we try to really push them to do different things,” LaChance said.

In addition to fishing, students fly kites and play with a soccer ball, and one even tried to do a little kite boarding with a sail normally used to surf in Mexico. LaChance said by the time they are in eighth grade, he wants students to be pursuing activities they are interested in on these outings.

In the fall, the class did a three-day backpacking trip through the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area, and they prepared for that trip through lessons in physical education classes.

Eighth-grader Justin Hamilton uses a Vexilar depth finder to set how deep he wants his bait to be in the water. In this spot, Steamboat Lake is about 8 feet deep, and he wants his lure about a foot above the bottom. (Photo by Dylan Anderson)

“The big thing is the food prep and how they are going to handle their food and then how to pack their backpacks,” Kohler said. “During the week, for their hour, they will do that prep.”

Before going on the full trip, the class embarks on several practice hikes up to Hahns Peak, Gold Creek Lake and part of the Zirkel Circle trail on Fridays, Kohler said.

Throughout the winter, students will cross-country ski during the week and typically go for a longer trip on Fridays, often exploring many of the trails in the mountains around Clark. This month, the students will also take a trip to Bluebird Backcountry for a backcountry skiing experience.

Eighth-grader Bodie Zamzow tried to get some air with his kite surfing sail, but Friday lacked the strong winds needed to keep the kite in the air. Later, Bodie switched tactics, using a sled to ride across the snowy surface of Steamboat Lake. (Photo by Dylan Anderson)

In May, students go on a rafting trip from Yampa Canyon into the Green River. In previous years, they have traveled farther to places like Great Sand Dunes National Park or to Moab, Utah, but the pandemic has required them to stay closer to home.

The ice fishing started with staff bringing their own equipment and getting as many students out as they can. This year, a donor approached LaChance about wanting to help the school buy poles, a collapsible ice house, an auger and other basics needed for ice fishing. In future years, LaChance said the school will be able to add to the equipment they already have and be able to get more students out at a time.

Several students caught trout Friday, with Jake Muhlbauer describing the strategy of his first catch as simply, “I reeled it in.” He said he would be bringing the fish home to have for dinner. Jake’s twin brother Justin also caught a fish but had a bigger one spit out his lure right as it got close to the surface.

North Routt Community Charter School Executive Director Brandon LaChance drills another hole in the 2-foot-thick ice at Steamboat Lake. (Photo by Dylan Anderson)

Others were not so lucky, with Mia MacIntyre going the full day without a strike. LaChance drilled another hole in the ice in the ice house in the hopes a different spot would spur a hit, but ultimately, it did not.

LaChance said the bait wasn’t the problem. He said his unique choice to lure in fish has been successful in the past, including younger students catching several large trout a few weeks earlier. As for what the bait is, he isn’t saying.

“I don’t want to tell,” LaChance said. “Don’t say it because than everybody is going to bring them up here.”

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