More than a dozen students and parents from Commonwealth Connections Academy lined the bank of Beltzville Lake, listening to an ecotour guide explain the importance of our local watershed and the lake's wildlife.

These high school students and their parents were gathered for a field trip that would culminate in a three-hour canoe ride. But unlike most school trips, many of these students were meeting each other for the first time. Commonwealth Connections Academy is a public cyber school that focuses on in-home and online learning. Students meet their classmates during trips such as this.

Northeastern Pennsylvania is serviced by a CCA branch office in Lehighton, which is used primarily for state testing and for organizing field trips. CCA offered more than 250 field trips to its students during the 2008-2009 school year. Each trip is organized and coordinated by a parent volunteer.

Tour guide Steve Oliphant, co-owner of Susquehanna Outfitters in Harrisburg, began by explaining the importance of watersheds and the "big picture" of our waterways.

"We're in the Delaware Bay watershed," he said. "It empties out into the bays, which feed millions of animals and wildlife." He showed the group a satellite image of the entire watershed, helping students to find where their town is located in relation to bodies of water.

On this trip, students planned to canoe up Wild Creek and gather samples to assess water quality. They would look at both water quality and the number of animals in and around the water.

"This helps us to determine the health of the water," he said. Oliphant explained that all of the creatures living around the lake depend on its health, and that examining both large and small life forms can give students a good idea of the water's quality.

"If I see an osprey, I generally know that there are fish in the lake," he said.

Oliphant also spoke about the factors that can affect water quality in our region, including farming and coal mining. He noted that forests are a great filter and can prevent pollution and fertilizer runoff from entering our watersheds.

Despite 50-degree weather and a chilly lake, the students looked eager to get into the canoes and begin their journey. They worked as a team to unload each canoe and place it in the water. Jill Miller, also co-owner of Susquehanna Outfitters, offered a brief lesson on paddling and canoe safety.

As the group began pairing off and climbing into the canoes, she noted that this is an important age for people to learn more about the environment and how our actions can impact the watershed.

"They are going to be nature's advocates as they grow older," said Miller. "These people will eventually have boats and fishing licenses. They will hopefully be protectors of our waterways. Advocacy can come at every different age, and we hope it starts here."

The tour was also to focus on lifestyle choices and the environment, said Oliphant.

"We hope to emphasize the connection between personal lifestyle choices and the environment," he said, noting that pollution, littering and transportation choices can have a large impact on the environment.

"We want people to make links between their lifestyle and local resources."