The cluster of about 20 teens shuffles precariously along the boardwalk, hanging on Dave Bennie's every word as he leads them from popular black bear snack spots to a former First Nations midden site and then back to the Noons Creek hatchery for a lesson in invertebrates and the salmon life cycle.
It's a science class tour that has happened many, many times in the hatchery's 25-year history. Thousands of students and myriad community groups have heard the salmon story from Bennie, the Port Moody Ecological Society (PMES) volunteer leader who is always eager to share his enthusiasm for the creek and, hopefully, inspire some to join the cavalry.
But while a strong public education component is common among local hatchery operations, PMES is unique in going one step further by offering a bursary for those wishing to pursue studies in the fish, wildlife or environmental fields.
Brian Wormald, PMES president, said the bursary is the culmination of the group's education efforts.
"How better to educate than to assist some passionate, driven youth to achieve their goal of helping the world move towards a more environmentally friendly and sustainable future?"
The Bill Nicol bursary was established in the early to mid 1990s to honour its namesake, a longtime volunteer who donated funds from collecting bottles for many years. Past recipients have gone on to positions with Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Ministry of Environment while others have become teachers, Wormald said.
Around 2010, a donation from the estate of Richard Weldon Haley prompted the group to combine the two funds and invest them with the Vancouver Foundation; the interest earned goes to the bursary pool and is awarded annually to an exceptional volunteer for post-secondary education in an environmental field.
Wormald said there was no question who this year's recipient would be: Nicole Maniago, a relative newcomer to the hatchery whose "passion, dedication and previous history of volunteerism at other organizations" made her an easy choice.
"She has a 'can do' attitude, willing to try anything new, and can be seen jumping into a pair of hip-waders any chance she gets," Wormald said.
Maniago first visited the Noons Creek hatchery last October and found she just couldn't leave.
At the time, she was holding down several environmental and wildlife protection volunteer positions after taking a three-week career discovery course through WorkBC. Through that program, the 30-year-old found a career path that connected her back to her childhood roots: camping in the woods with her dad, fishing with her grandfather and picking huckleberries with her grandmother.
"It instilled in me from a very young age a love and appreciation for nature and the outdoors," Maniago said.
She added the Noons Creek hatchery to her roster of volunteer roles and was quickly hooked.
"Dave Bennie gave me the first tour, he took me around and showed me everything, and he's just got so much knowledge and passion for everything, it really got me started," said Maniago.
At the hatchery, Maniago studied water quality, getting wet and dirty as she collected samples and put them under the microscope. She helped in the annual egg take and fertilization process, incubating the tiny red globes and watching them hatch.
"It was just so fascinating," Maniago said. "I loved being a 'fish mom' raising little fish and getting to release them at the Fingerling Festival, and seeing how excited the kids were to release them. It made me so proud and happy."
PMES was so thrilled with Maniago's dedication to the hatchery that not only did it award her the 2016 bursary, the group also invited her to join the board as a director at large, "which she excitedly accepted," Wormald said.
Maniago said she is considering carefully her next education step but knows it will be connected to environmental and stream protection.
"I know I want to inspire others to have the same passion for nature and wildlife," she said — just as Bennie, Wormald and other hatchery volunteers did for her.
• For more information about the Noons Creek hatchery and the PMES bursary, visit www.noonscreek.org.