A gaggle of giggling pre-teens gathered in a clearing at the edge of the Cedar River just north of Austin on a green-tinged Friday morning in May.
With a light breeze moderating warm sunlight, the fourth- and fifth-grade students focused on exuberant Karlie Weaver, their Canoemobile guide for the coming hour. Alternately eager and timid, they revealed their hopes and worries with their questions.
"Will we see any water animals?" asked one girl.
Turtles, baby snakes and ducks were all possibilities, Weaver said with a nod.
"What happens if the canoe goes too fast?" asked a bespectacled boy.
Weaver assured him the power to control the canoe's pace was in his hands.
Another day of Canoemobile was underway — meaning accessible lessons and a lot of smiles.
Canoemobile — a program of St. Paul-based nonprofit Wilderness Inquiry (WI) — has offered underserved populations a fun, user-friendly gateway to public lands and waterways via hands-on experiences since 2010.
"One of the biggest takeaways is the connection and relationship-building with their peers and caring adults," said Julie Edmiston, WI's associate executive director. Since its inception, Canoemobile has introduced over a half-million people to the joys of the great outdoors, Edmiston said.
In the greater Austin area alone, where Canoemobile programs unfolded for a full week in early May at Ramsey Mill Pond on the Cedar River, more than 2,300 students have had the chance to paddle a canoe and learn about the value of clean water over the past four years.
In early May, 761 students and teachers participated at the Austin site, with another 55 people joining a Saturday "community paddle" that welcomed family members and area residents.
"Even just a day on the water can make a difference," said Edmiston. "Water can be scary to some kids, but they always return from their paddles excited and happy."
Austin, where 44% of the district's nearly 5,300 students are categorized as economically disadvantaged and 52% are kids of color, is an ideal spot for Canoemobile.
Erika Rivers, WI's executive director, has witnessed first-hand the difference this outreach program can make.
"Often, these young people have lived within walking distance of these rivers and lakes their whole lives but never knew what it felt like to float on the water," she said.
"They gain the life-affirming experiences of connecting to the flowing water, seeing up close the birds and wildlife that live there and sharing the accomplishment of mastering a new skill with friends and classmates."
Paddles as learning tools
The 24-foot canoes used for Canoemobile crisscross the United States each year; upcoming engagements include Michigan (Flint and Grand Rapids), New York, New Jersey and Chicago.
Each canoe — specially crafted for greater stability — can fit one staff member and nine to 10 others. The traveling Canoemobile teams typically comprise seven staff and six canoes, meaning up to 54 people can be on the water at one time.
At some locations, land-based partners support the program with educational stations, Edmiston said.
That's 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.
Tim Ruzek, water plan and outreach coordinator with the Mower County agency, created stations through which kids rotated while others took their turns on the water.
At one station, Ruzek had his young charges 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, kids learned how runoff from various sources — agriculture, roads and urban development — affects water quality.
"We're all part of the problem, but we can all be part of the solution," Ruzek said.
There's also a "litter-grabber" relay, in which teams race about 25 yards to snatch up aluminum cans, fast-food wrappers, plastic bottles and other typical detritus before depositing it in buckets strategically positioned with a clear view of the Cedar River and the gliding canoes.
"Some kids are nervous about going out on the water, so seeing their friends having fun on the river with nobody tipping in helps ease their anxiety," said Ruzek.
All of the activities help Canoemobile crew leaders like Weaver and Matt Majewski hone their approaches to educating and encouraging kids.
In short order, they've taught their respective groups proper paddle holds, paddle strokes, safety measures and canoe etiquette, while expertly incorporating team-first attitudes and a liberal dose of hilarity.
A four-point directive — "zip and clip" for personal flotation devices, go "low and slow" for boarding and exiting, listen to the boat captain and do a "hip check" to maintain proper watercraft balance — was cheerfully but pointedly drilled in before each group could load.
"Loading is the wobbliest part," said Weaver, "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 attending teacher, Jordan Heimer.
"The Ramsey Rhinos," under the tutelage of Majewski, happily yelled their choices as Majewski tossed out questions while leading them to the boat landing.
"Jimmy John's or Subway? Dogs or cats? Toenail clippings or grass clippings?" he queried. (Unanimous response: "Grass clippings!")
The innovative Wilderness Inquiry launched the first version of Canoemobile (then dubbed Urban Wilderness Canoe Adventure) in 2008 as a partnership with the National Park Service and the Mississippi Park Connection, Edmiston said. It morphed into Canoemobile in 2010 as its national tours began.
Canoemobile continues to be funded through 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 hearing impaired or use wheelchairs.
"I've seen children with special needs having some of the biggest smiles coming off those canoes," said Ruzek.
"I can't say enough about this group. It's worth the money we put into it and it gets the job done because we reach so many youth with key messages about protecting water quality and enjoying the water."
Besides the physical activity, participants benefit from history, ecology and science lessons. And a Canoemobile day brings additional perks.
Said Edmiston, "It's about doing something you have never done before and finding you can be successful at it; we hope that confidence-builder carries into the classroom."
Rivers, who shared a canoe with fourth-graders at Austin, witnessed a fellow paddler named Angel progress from fear of tipping to greater confidence.
"By the end of the outing," Rivers said, "she was paddling like a pro in perfect time with our strokes. I hope she finds herself in another canoe sometime this summer."
Jane Turpin Moore is a Northfield-based writer and a regular contributor to Inspired.