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“Nature never stops,” according to Suzanne Burns, which is likely why this new director of education at the Connecticut River Museum has a busy winter season ahead of her. (Photo by Rita Christopher/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
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What links Pittsburg, New Hampshire, a town with a population of 813 at the Canadian border, and the valley shore area of Connecticut? Even if the New Hampshire town is not a familiar name, there is a powerful connection: the Connecticut River. Pittsburg is where the river rises and some 406 miles later it runs into Long Island Sound not far from the Connecticut River Museum in Essex where Suzanne Burns is the new director of education.
Suzanne has not traveled the whole length of the Connecticut River, but she has been to Pittsburg to see its source, a body of water called Fourth Connecticut Lake. Yet “lake” is likely a grandiose description for that body of water.
The Nature Conservancy website describes Fourth Connecticut Lake, the last and smallest of a four-lake chain, as “the humble beginnings of New England’s Longest River.” Another site describes it as “a little marshy pond,” and still another as a “very peaceful beaver pond.”
Suzanne doesn’t have to rely on second-hand descriptions; she has visited the lake, hiking a trail that runs through Canada before returning to American soil. The Nature Conservancy website warns visitors that it might be advisable to carry a passport when hiking the trail leading to the lake.
“It was an experience,” Suzanne says.
Suzanne has recently taken over the position of director of education at the Connecticut River Museum from longtime education director Jennifer White-Dobbs, who has moved to Bozeman, Montana with her husband Christopher Dobbs, formerly the executive director of the Connecticut River Museum. He started a new position as director of the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman this past September.
According to Suzanne, some 8,000 students a year participate in educational programs designed by the museum. Many come to the museum for half-day workshops, but Suzanne also does a number of outreach programs at schools all over the state. Students range from the early grades of elementary school to junior and senior high school.
“All our programs are multidisciplinary; we look at cultural history and environmental history,” she says.
Currently the museum is presenting some workshops under a grant that matches students from more rural areas with students who live in large cities. On a recent morning, Suzanne led students from Deep River and Hartford in a workshop at the museum that highlighted industry along the Connecticut River and the human and environmental consequences that resulted from it.
“It was a great group; everyone was in a good mood and had a great time,” she says.
When Suzanne tells students that rivers get grades—a subject about which they all know—to reflect how clean they are, the classes always want to know what grade the Connecticut River received. The answer, a familiar phrase from report cards, is that there has been improvement.
For context, nature writer Christine Woodside, a Deep River resident, traced the source of a description of the Connecticut River as “the world’s most beautifully landscaped cesspool” to a Katharine Hepburn comment in 1965 documentary on the river. Today, Suzanne says, the river, which once received a grade of D, gets a grade of B. She adds that, given the number of people who live along it, the river is unlikely ever to be clean enough for a grade of A.
Suzanne says that students, particularly in the younger grades, are often not sure when they look at the water whether it is a river or a lake. They are also surprised to see the color of the water: more brown than blue. That, Suzanne explains, is because the river is so shallow in places, little more than three feet at low tide at some spots.
“I am always encouraged when students ask good questions. You recognize that you are interesting them,” she says.
Suzanne, who grew up in Wilmington, Massachusetts, majored in environmental education at Springfield College in Massachusetts, perhaps best known as the place basketball was invented in 1891 by Canadian graduate student James Naismith. She says in high school she was interested in recycling and conservation, but her fascination with nature started much earlier. Growing up, there was a swampy area behind her home, where she recalls exploring and catching frogs.
“Some of my best memories are of the outdoors,” she says.
After graduation, she worked at various nature centers in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Maryland before coming to the Connecticut River Museum, originally as an environmental educator.
In addition to the enrichment programs she oversees for school children, Suzanne is also involved in programs for senior citizens, summer camps for young people and ongoing museum favorites like the annual eagle watch cruises in February and March. The cruises, a collaboration with RiverQuest of Haddam, start out with a classroom presentation on big birds in winter focusing on the eagles.
The holiday season is a particularly busy time of year at the museum, with the annual train show, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, going on until Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019. Interim museum president Tom Wilcox says there he can hear a different kind of energy at the museum at this time of year; instead of the more sedate footsteps of adults, he hears the constant patter of small feet running up the stairs to the train exhibit on the third floor.
This is also a busy time for Suzanne, who is doing two holiday camps for youngsters, one on steam trains and steam boats, and another on trees, but not with summer leaves, rather trees in winter.
“Nature never stops,” she says. “It’s a year-round cycle.”
For more information on the Connecticut River Museum, visit www.ctrivermuseum.org.
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