A group of giggling pre-teens gathered in a clearing by the Cedar River just north of Austin on a green Friday morning in May.
With a light breeze moderating the heat of the sun, the fourth and fifth graders focused on the exuberant Karlie Weaver, their canoemobile guide for the hour ahead. Alternately eager and shy, they revealed their hopes and concerns through their questions.
“Will we see aquatic animals? asked a girl.
Turtles, baby snakes and ducks were all possibilities, Weaver said with a nod.
“What happens if the canoe goes too fast? asked a boy with glasses.
Weaver assured him that the power to control the pace of the canoe was in his hands.
Another day of Canoemobile was underway, meaning accessible lessons and lots of smiles.
Canoemobile – a St. Paul-based non-profit organization program Wilderness Survey (WI) — providing underserved populations with a fun and friendly gateway to public lands and waterways through hands-on experiences since 2010.
“One of the biggest takeaways is connecting and building relationships with their peers and caring adults,” said Julie Edmiston, Associate Executive Director of WI. Since its inception, Canoemobile has introduced more than half a million people to the joys of the outdoors, Edmiston said.
In the major Austin area alone, where canoeing programs ran for a full week in early May at Ramsey Mill Pond on the Cedar River, more than 2,300 students had the chance to paddle a canoe and learn about the value of clean water in the past. four years.
In early May, 761 students and teachers participated in the Austin site, and another 55 people joined in a Saturday “community paddle” that welcomed family members and area residents.
“Even a single day on the water can make a difference,” said Edmiston. “The water can scare some kids, but they always come back from their paddles excited and happy.”
Austin, where 44% of the district’s approximately 5,300 students are classified as economically disadvantaged and 52% are children of color, is an ideal location for Canoemobile.
Erika Rivers, Executive Director of WI, has witnessed firsthand the difference this outreach program can make.
“Often these young people have lived within walking distance of these rivers and lakes all their lives, but never knew what it was like to float on the water,” she said.
“They gain vital experiences by connecting with flowing water, seeing the birds and wildlife that live there up close, and sharing the accomplishment of mastering a new skill with friends and classmates. .”
Paddles as learning tools
The 24-foot canoes used for Canoemobile criss-cross the United States every year; upcoming commitments include Michigan (Flint and Grand Rapids), New York, New Jersey and Chicago.
Each canoe, specially designed for greater stability, can accommodate one staff member and nine to ten others. Traveling canoe teams typically consist of seven employees and six canoes, meaning up to 54 people can be on the water at one time.
In some locations, terrestrial partners support the program with educational stations, Edmiston said.
This is the case in Austin, where Canoemobile enjoys an enthusiastic partnership with the Mower County Soil and Water Conservation District and the Cedar River Watershed District.
Mower County agency water feature and outreach coordinator Tim Ruzek created stations through which children rotated while others took turns on the water.
At one station, Ruzek instructed his young proteges to hunt for wet bugs. “The variety and quantity of wet bugs can be an indicator of water quality,” Ruzek said.
At a watershed demonstration table, children learned how runoff from various sources – agriculture, roads and urban development – affects water quality.
“We are all part of the problem, but we can all be part of the solution,” Ruzek said.
There is also a ‘trash picker’ relay, in which teams walk about 25 meters to pick up aluminum cans, fast food wrappers, plastic bottles and other typical rubbish before depositing them in buckets. strategically positioned with unobstructed views of the Cedar River and gliding canoes.
“Some kids are nervous about getting out on the water, so seeing their friends having fun on the river without anyone tipping them helps ease their anxiety,” Ruzek said.
All of the activities help Canoemobile team leaders like Weaver and Matt Majewski hone their approaches to educating and encouraging children.
In no time, they taught their respective groups the proper paddling grips, paddle strokes, safety precautions and canoe etiquette, while expertly incorporating team attitudes and a healthy dose of canoeing. ‘hilarity.
A four-point guideline – “zip and clip” for personal flotation devices, go “low and slow” for boarding and exiting, listen to the boat captain, and do “hip control” to maintain watercraft balance – was cheerfully but ostensibly drilled before each group could load up.
“Loading is the most wobbly part,” Weaver said, “and keeping your hips close to the side of the canoe will make it more stable.”
Voting for a team name is another creative element. Weaver’s crew, from Adams Elementary School in the Southland School District, chose “The Heimer Express” for their boat, in honor of their homeroom teacher, Jordan Heimer.
“Ramsey’s Rhinos,” under Majewski’s tutelage, happily shouted their picks as Majewski threw questions while leading them to the landing stage.
“Jimmy John’s or Subway? Dogs or cats? Nail clippings or grass clippings?” he asked. (Unanimous answer: “grass clippings!”)
The innovative Wilderness Inquiry launched the first version of Canoemobile (then dubbed Urban Wilderness Canoe Adventure) in 2008 in partnership with the National Park Service and Mississippi Park Connection, Edmiston said. It transformed into a canoemobile in 2010 at the start of its national tours.
Canoemobile continues to be funded by a variety of public and private sources and partnerships; government/corporate/foundation grants all play a role, as do individual donations and fee-for-service.
Its custom canoes also accommodate adults and children with disabilities, including those who are hard of hearing or use wheelchairs.
“I’ve seen kids with special needs have some of the biggest smiles coming out of those canoes,” Ruzek said.
“I can’t say enough about this band. It is worth the money we invest in it and it does the job because we are reaching so many young people with key messages about protecting water quality and enjoying water.
In addition to physical activity, participants benefit from lessons in history, ecology and science. And a Canoemobile day brings additional benefits.
Says Edmiston, “It’s about doing something you’ve never done before and finding out that you can do it; hopefully that confidence factor carries over into the classroom.”
Rivers, who shared a canoe with fourth graders in Austin, watched another paddler named Angel go from fear of tipping to greater confidence.
“At the end of the outing,” Rivers said, “she was paddling like a pro in perfect time with our strokes. Hopefully she finds herself in another canoe this summer.”
Jane Turpin Moore is a Northfield-based writer and regular contributor to Inspired.