Learning runs through it
At the Sacramento River Discovery Center nature is the real teacher
Ben Hughes is a teacher. Ask him what he teaches and he will answer, “Yes,” because no matter what subject you might ask him about, he has taught it in some form at some time.
Since 1965, Hughes has been actively teaching in the community he lives in and loves. One of his closest friends, a neighbor and fellow educator (from Hughes’ perspective), is the wide and wonderful Sacramento River, which courses an embracing arc around and through Hughes’ hometown of Red Bluff.
Exploring the river, learning and sharing about its birds and bugs and plants and fish—its very personality—is one of Hughes’ deepest passions.
Hughes chairs the Board of Directors of the Sacramento River Discovery Center (SRDC), a nonprofit environmental education organization that is located and provides programming on the 488-acre Red Bluff Recreation Area. The RBRA is managed as part of the Mendocino National Forest along the eastern banks of the Sacramento south of downtown Red Bluff, just a stone’s throw from where Hughes and his wife, Bobby, live.
To get there, you pass strip malls and drive through unlikely looking residential neighborhoods until you are right along the river. When you pass through a fence marking the beginning of the Mendocino National Forest, the landscape opens up, becoming rolling oak grassland on one side, the river and its accompanying trees, scrub and wetlands on the other.
“You will know you are at the SRDC when you get to the funky mural-painted building with the blue river and fish swimming across it. That’s us,” Hughes directed me for our first meeting.
Involved with the SRDC since its beginnings in the mid-1990s, and having been a tireless volunteer and board member throughout the years, Hughes is perhaps more intimately involved with the recreation area than most.
“I guess my favorite spot on the site—and I love a lot of them—is the old-growth riparian area,” Hughes tells me. “It’s unkempt, everything all running together—mugwort, pipevine, grape, oaks, walnut, sycamore and cottonwood. This spot brings to life what the land looked like when white settlers first arrived. Humming and buzzing with life. It’s the wildness that people respond to. The settlers fought against the wildness, but we’re fighting to save it.”
The SRDC, captained by Hughes, is seeking to introduce more of us to the wildness and the watershed and, at the same time, teaching us to respect and love it and, Hughes hopes, make “stewards” of us all.
The vision of the SRDC, and the purpose of its many river-based outreach programs for school-aged children and the general public, is to get people to see streams and rivers and watersheds as connected to their own quality of life—connected to them, Hughes explains.
Hughes is a vibrant man with a quick smile. He wears a straw hat peppered with pins announcing the many places he and Bobby, who volunteers as the SRDC’s publicity manager, have visited.
“I have been working with kids in a classroom and out here at the center for many years,” Hughes tells me. “When you are down at the water, kids wading up to their thighs with their bug-collecting kits, and someone starts to jump up and down and yell, ‘Look what I’ve got in my basket. I have three of them!’—then you know you have them. They now know the river. And they will never forget it.”
This idea is reiterated by SRDC Summer Camp Director Zachary Whitten, who was one of those kids whose hearts and minds were captured by a love of the river and the greater outdoors. It occurred back in 1995, when he was one of the first Red Bluff High School interns working and learning at the SRDC site.
“Like many of the kids I now teach, I grew up in Red Bluff and had never been on the river until the internship in my senior year of high school. I loved everything about it: the slough, floating on the river, the stars overhead. After that internship, I came back over and over.”
Now a veteran teacher himself, he goes on to say: “If a kid finds a big potato bug or learns to identify a planet at one of the night star sessions or digs up a ‘dinosaur bone’ in a simulated dig at camp one week and brings his or her family back to the site the next week, then we’re successful.”
The 69-year-old Hughes grew up in Eureka and Alturas and graduated from Chico State University with a major in social sciences and a minor in earth science. He began teaching world geography at Red Bluff Union High School in 1965 and went on to teach a wide variety of subjects there and as an adjunct professor at Shasta College, where he continues to teach. He retired from Red Bluff High in 2003.
In 1994, as a school district representative from Tehama County/Red Bluff High, Hughes became involved in the initial planning stages of what would become the fledgling Sacramento River Discovery Center. Some 48 other regional agencies participated, ranging from the Paskenta Band of Nomlaki Indians and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to the Boy and Girl Scouts. Hughes served as the board of directors’ first chairman; after many years’ hiatus he returned to the position in 2004.
It’s been a long, winding and interesting journey from that first planning year to now. In addition to constructing the center’s main building, the SRDC designed and planted the almost one-acre Discovery Garden, an exuberant and year-round blooming native-plant demonstration garden located behind the main building. Visitors learn about plants through hands-on gardening as well as through art and painting classes spent among the native flowers.
SRDC staff and volunteers also helped the U.S. Forest Service put in 4 1/2 miles of public-access trails throughout the RBRA, complete with informational signage all along the way, thanks to many corporate and private donations. Camp Discovery, a day and overnight educational campground available for everything from summer scout camp groups to family vacations and developed and managed by the SRDC, is now an established asset.
Other members of the SRDC’s crew include Carlene Cramer, the site’s manager; Red Bluff High School Regional Occupation Program (R.O.P.) natural-resources teacher Matt Pritchard, who leads two hands-on high-school classes a day at the center during the school year; and many regular volunteers.
The center’s signature educational programs include school-aged environmental-education classes and its Thursday evening programs, featuring guest experts on a wide variety of environmental topics, such as annual bird-monitoring results and water-quality presentations. Every May a festive watershed celebration weekend takes place, and every November there’s an extensive native-plant sale featuring many plants propagated and grown in a new greenhouse built by the R.O.P. classes. One Saturday a month a guided bird walk is led by regional bird expert Dr. David Dahnke, often joined by Hughes.
“My favorite bird to watch might be the white and black ospreys—they come back each year to nest. The way they soar over the water hunting, it’s majestic,” says Hughes, with an infectious smile and a twinkle in his eye.
Come and meet your home river for yourself, he recommends: “Start at the Sacramento River Discovery Center.”