Education, excitement and environmentalism converged Sept. 14 in Big Walnut Creek at Whitehall Community Park as children and adults alike learned about the creatures that call the creek home.

Walter Neideffer, 11, of Gahanna leaned more toward excitement as he summed up his experience:

"Crawfish are cool!"

Walter and his 8-year-old sister, Rose, are among those who participated in Whitehall's first creek walk, led by Kurt Keljo, a watershed resource specialist for the Franklin Soil and Water Conservation District.

Big Walnut Creek winds along the eastern side of Whitehall Community Park, creating a natural boundary between Whitehall and Columbus. Reaching the water from the park requires a short hike through wooded, uneven terrain.

Whitehall has a partnership with Franklin Soil and Water Conservation District to provide programming, said Cory Ollie, coordinator for the Whitehall Parks and Recreation Department.

The event was the first at Whitehall Community Park, but the city expects to plan another next year, Ollie said.

Keljo said Big Walnut Creek is "one of the nicest" bodies of water in central Ohio, providing homes for mussels, mayflies and many other organisms.

The 63-year-old Keljo said the study of watersheds is a "retirement career."

Keljo spent decades as a pastor in Lutheran churches and at college campuses, including Capital University.

He has a master's degree in divinity and in environmental science from Ohio State University and a doctorate in religion and psychology from Emory University.

His love of land, particularly water, flows back to the time he spent as a child at his grandfather's farmhouse in upstate New York.

After retiring from full-time, ordained ministry, Keljo turned his attention to the environment, particularly studying watersheds.

"I went from doing what I was passionate about as a volunteer to doing it professionally," Keljo said.

Last weekend's creek walk was casual, though the exercises resembled those used to collect official data for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, Keljo said.

Using nets, mesh screens and other equipment, creek-walk participants collected a variety of waterborne life, from crawfish several inches in length to mayflies that could be viewed via specially crafted water trays with screw-top magnifiers.

Water quality is graded using a point system, with less sensitive species assigned lower point values and more sensitive species given more points. For example, some species of snails rise to the surface and collect oxygen from the air, storing it for long periods of time, while other species of snails, those with gills, can only absorb oxygen from the water. The latter, Keljo said, are much more susceptible to any toxins in the water, while the former can continue to live even in poor water quality.

Keljo compared the study of groundwater for contaminants to that of the aftermath of a tornado.

"If you didn't see the tornado, you still know it was there because of the damage," said Keljo, just as the absence of particular organisms indicates a toxin is or once was present.

Jesse Neideffer, 44, of Gahanna, a fly fisherman, said taking his children, Walter and Rose, to the creek walk was a natural extension of the activities the family shares.

"We go on walks at Friendship Park and at Woodside Green, so I knew we'd like this," Neideffer said.

Gabe Timperley, 10, of Whitehall took part in the creek walk with his grandfather, Mike DeWitt, also of Whitehall.

"It was really an amazing experience," Gabe said. "It was neat to see all the different things that are in the water that I couldn't see (until caught)."

Whitehall resident Judith Spater and her husband, Stephen, live near Community Park and walk there often.

"We both are interested in whatever we can do (to protect and improve water quality) and look forward to kayaking here," said Judith Spater, a member of the Whitehall's board of zoning and appeals and whose husband is a member of the city's parks and recreation commission.

Whitehall's long-term plans call for building a kayak launch along the stretch of Big Walnut Creek in the park.

kcorvo@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekCorvo