"The Yampa is our river, we must take care of it."
-- verse from a rendition of the song The Earth is Your Mother
The miles of flowing river that connect Routt County's towns and cities provides much more than drinking water and fishing holes.
For the past five years, the Yampa River has forged the foundation for friendships and learning partnerships among a varied group of area students.
Take, for example, Nichole Wilson and Colleen Garrecht-Connelly. The two blonde-haired girls were strangers in September. Eight months later, they've formed a bond neither is likely to forget.
Wilson, a junior at Soroco High School, and Garrecht-Connelly, a first-grader at Soda Creek Elementary School, represent just one of the more than 100 partnerships formed this year through the Yampa River Ecology Project.
The Yampa River Ecology Project began five years ago as the brainchild of Elaine Sturges. With the help of Soroco science teacher Ed Hayne and Soda Creek teacher Barbara Keenan, the program has expanded to serve more than 400 students.
From its onset, the goal of the program was to bring together older and younger students to study the ecology of the Yampa River. Since 1999, Keenan's and Hayne's classes have come together on numerous occasions during the course of a school year for field trips, games and learning projects.
From Carpenter Ranch to Finger Rock Fish Hatchery, the students have studied the biology and ecology of the Yampa River, partaking in hands-on and place-based activities throughout.
The children, who are grouped together in pairs or teams of "study buddies," sing songs, play games, and most important, learn from one another, Hayne said.
"I think is just one of our better programs," said the veteran science teacher who plans to retire at the end of the year. "Each year we seem to have more and more fun. It's just been a wonderful program to be involved with."
The classes take field trips to each other's schools, where they work together on projects and activities. The high school students researched birds of the Yampa Valley and put together books for their study buddies. The two classes made birdhouses for the Yampa River Botanic Park, clay animals for a scavenger hunt and searched for animal tracks in patches of snow.
There was a trip to the Stagecoach Wetland Trail and a journey to Soda Creek before the holidays to exchange greeting cards.
"Oh my goodness, it was an absolute blast," Wilson said as her young friend sat in her lap Wednesday night during a ceremony for the project. "Teaching them and interacting with them was just a lot of fun."
Sturges, Keenan and Hayne hope future students will be able to enjoy the program as much as Wilson has, but funding issues could stand in the way. Many of the grants used to fund the program have dried up. With 22 area classes participating in the Yampa River Ecology Project, the budget is stretched thin, Sturges said.
But, like the river that provides the program's backbone, there's optimism that the Yampa River Ecology Project will run on.
"It's the river that connects the communities," Hayne said. "It's the Yampa River that connects these kids."