"Can you see it, Zachary? Can you see it? Keep it going, keep it going.”
Peering intently over the side of the boat, the proud grandma was excitedly coaching her 10-year-old grandson as he did a scientific experiment in the waters of Lake George.
Inch by inch, Zachary lowered a black-and-white disk by its tape-measure tether until the circle disappeared in the depths of the lake.
After a few minutes, Zachary slowly reeled up the tape measure until he could see the disk again, as he looked down through 26 feet of water. Zoie, his nine-year-old sister, read the number on the tape measure and wrote it down.
With grandma’s help, the children had just tested the clarity of the water in Lake George using a Secchi Disk, a simple instrument that was invented in 1865 by a Italian priest.
“It was awesome,” says Zoie.
“We are the clearest lake in New York state. And we are in the top 10 in the country,” Jill Trunko, an educator with the nonprofit Lake George Association, tells the 29 passengers on the Rosalia Anna Ashby, a breezy 40-foot catamaran.
Every July and August, the public is invited to come aboard the LGA’s Floating Classroom to learn about the ecology, geology and animals of Lake George and do water-quality experiments.
On July 10, the first public cruise of the summer, there were 19 adults and 10 children on the boat, from Maryland, Pennslyvania, New Jersey and New York.
Anne Donahue, a Baltimore resident, said that she and her husband signed up because they have a house on Lake George.
“We don’t know enough about the water, the impact we’re having on the lake,” Donahue said.
The Lake George Association, the nation’s oldest lake conservation organization, was founded in 1885 by fishermen who wanted to protect the fish in the lake and keep it well-stocked with different species.
The Floating Classroom started in the early 1990s as hands-on education for schoolchildren.
“Originally, it was just a school field trip,” says LGA education coordinator Kristen Rohne. “We just did it during the school year, in the spring and fall.”
In 2009, when the organization launched the Rosalia Anna Ashby, its custom-built boat with a canopy to shelter passengers from the sun and rain, the program expanded to include public cruises in July and August in addition to the regular school trips.
In 2012, there were 1,886 Floating Classroom participants, 369 of them during the summer.
“The kids love it. They love the hands-on, really getting to see everything up close,” says Rohne.
A few weeks ago, the lessons about the lake and its creatures began before the Floating Classroom even left the dock.
“Look, there’s a loon,” a man announced to the other passengers, and as they scurried to the stern for a better look, Trunko answered questions about the heavy-set aquatic bird.
When Captain Don sounds the horn and steers the boat to the center of the lake, Trunko sails through a encyclopedia of astounding facts about Lake George.
Created by glaciers that scoured the earth, the Queen of Lakes is two million years old and 32 miles long. Its exceptionally clear waters are 200 feet deep, and 172 islands rise above the waves.
“Its biggest usage is as drinking water,” says Trunko.
The boat turns north, and we see the Tongue mountains, wreathed in morning mist. The steamboat Minne-Ha-Ha puffs along in the distance, and a green-and-white parasailing chute drifts across the sky.
“Everyone is going to learn how unique Lake George is. We’re going to test the water to see if it’s healthy,” Trunko tells the group.
Trunko and Rohne, the LGA’s two on-board educators, both hold environmental science degrees. Trunko earned hers at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and Rohne graduated from SUNY Fredonia.
According to Rohne, the biggest threat to Lake George is storm water runoff and pollution from storm water.
“It’s everything coming down off the land: fertilizers, nutrients. The nutrients cause more plant and algae growth. Erosion, soil coming into the water, will change the clarity.”
To combat this runoff, Randy Rath, the LGA’s project manager, works on storm water projects, Rohne says, putting in catch basins to catch sediment before it enters the lake. The village of Lake George has also installed permeable pavement on Beach Road, which filters runoff into the ground.
Back on the boat, it’s time for another experiment.
“We are going to look at the smallest things that live in Lake George. There are 20 different kinds of plankton living in Lake George. They start the food chain,” Trunko says.
“What other kinds of animals live in and near the lake?” she asks the children.
“Minnows!” shouts one girl. “Turtles!” offers another girl.
“Sharks! Are there sharks?” a small boy wants to know, and everyone laughs.
Passengers are handed a plankton net, which looks like a long mesh sock with a container on one end. They collect water samples from the lake, then carefully, using an eyedropper and a Petri dish, the droplets are inspected under a microscope.
“You are going to be able to see them breathing,” says Trunko, as she hands out plankton identification sheets.
For a while, the boat falls silent as children and adults adjust their optical instruments and search for the itty-bitty bits of life.
When plankton are sighted, heads come up from the microscopes, and animated voices announce their presence.
“Look at this, Dad. It’s the one that looks like a floating eyeball,” a boy tells his father.
Through another lens, a mini monster whips through the droplet. Shaped like a lobster, its body is transparent, as if it were made of plastic wrap, totally revealing its pulsing innards.
Yes, we saw the plankton breathing.
And what about that bright green streak down the middle of its body?
“That’s what it ate for breakfast,” says Trunko.
“Awesome,” says Zoie.