Canoemobile and CCCN Help Close the Nature Gap on Urban Waterways

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(Featured photo: Julia Schweitzer)

Canoemobile partnered with four of NLC’s seven pilot Cities Connecting Children to Nature (CCCN) cities to connect more children to their local waterways. This is a guest blog by Greg Lais, Founder and Executive Director of Wilderness Inquiry.

On a recent October day on the banks of the Ohio River in Louisville, Kentucky a boy with a prosthetic leg and another boy in a wheelchair loaded into a 24-foot Voyageur canoe with their families. After they paddled the river and got back to shore, the boys’ mothers expressed thanks to have the ability to share an outdoor adventure with their sons. “I love that we got to do this all together!” one mom said.

The canoe trips in Louisville, which took place over five days in early October, brought more than 650 people—most of them children—out on the water. Two community days offered chances for anyone to get onto the water, and three school days emphasized getting students from Jefferson County Public Schools on the water. The five day-long Canoemobile visit represented a marked increase over past years. That meant more students, some of them disabled and many of them of color, got out on the water to experience something new in their own backyard. A Wilderness Inquiry outdoor leader, who has seen the number of students increase during three years on the job, was inspired by the growth. “It was cool to come back to the same place and see that we are growing and we are working with more and more kids to get them outside and on their local waterways,” Julia Schweitzer said.

Louisville constitutes the most recent place where Canoemobile fulfills its role as an implementation partner of the  Cities Connecting Children to Nature (CCCN) initiative of the National League of Cities and the Children & Nature Network. CCCN helps city leaders and their partners ensure that all children have the opportunity to play, learn and grow in nature, from urban parks and community gardens to the great outdoors. CCCN plays a big role in closing the “nature gap” for children, especially for low-income children and children of color. Wilderness Inquiry is making sure that those children are connected not just to parks on land, but also to urban waterways. Students are brought out on local lakes, bays, and rivers in Wilderness Inquiry’s 24-foot, cedar-strip canoes to learn about environmental science, history, and culture.

CCCN’s seven pilot cities pursue strategies to increase everyday access to nature for children, and Wilderness Inquiry plays a part in the initiative in four of those cities—Louisville, Saint Paul, San Francisco and Grand Rapids. In several ways, Canoemobile has helped to expose the next generation to waterways and environmental learning in all four cities.

cccn blog 2Saint Paul Schools Superintendent Joe Gothard (Photo: Julia Schweitzer)

In Saint Paul during the summer of 2017, Canoemobile brought Saint Paul Public Schools Superintendent Joe Gothard out on the Mississippi River with students from the American Indian Education Program. The students learned about the river and its history while paddling. Along their route they stopped at Fort Snelling State Park to learn about American Indian culture and history while huddled around a Dakota Memorial. Students connected to a place and its history in a dynamic way, well beyond what textbooks alone can accomplish. The connection in Saint Paul has been encouraged by Mayor Chris Coleman, who has been a champion of Canoemobile’s spread throughout the U.S.

“The Canoemobile experience creates opportunities for students to explore the outdoors right in their own backyard. Everyone, no matter their background, deserves equitable access to recreational and educational activities. Helping CCCN connect Canoemobile to cities throughout the United States reflects my commitment to making sure all students in our communities have the opportunity to connect with nature.” – Mayor Chris Coleman, City of Saint Paul

cccn blog 3Students from Galileo High School are excited for Canoemobile in San Francisco (Photo: Adreon Morgan)

In 2015, San Francisco Recreation and Parks director Phil Ginsburg heard about Canoemobile at a CCCN event and resolved to bring Wilderness Inquiry’s Voyageurs to his hometown. Canoemobile first visited San Francisco that year and has been back every spring since then. In 2017, students boarded canoes on Lake Merced and saw diving grebes, great blue herons, and wetlands harboring several species of ducks. One Sunday, San Francisco Recreation and Parks brought in a mobile rock-climbing wall while Wilderness Inquiry offered free canoe rides to hundreds of participants. During another event, young adults with disabilities paddled with National Park Service rangers. In the last three years, more than a thousand people, most of them children, connected intimately with San Francisco’s waterways.

I met Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss and City Parks Director David Marquardt at the first CCCN gathering in Salt Lake City. Bliss is an avid outdoor person and worked to bring Canoemobile to Grand Rapids in 2017. That spring, Canoemobile took more than 1,000 eighth graders from the city’s public schools paddling on the Grand River at a crucial time. An emerging local movement calls for restoring the city’s namesake rapids and activating the river corridor for recreation — a movement that a young push of support could help. “Even though the river is at the heart of the city, very few kids have ever been exposed to canoeing or kayaking on it,” said Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation Business Manager Laura Cleypool. “We want to introduce them to the benefits of the river and the recreational opportunities available.”

cccn blog 4Students get ready to paddle in Grand Rapids (Photo: Julie Storck)

The students in Grand Rapids learned about the river, the wildlife that depends upon it and local history. Some of them paddled with Bliss as an added bonus. The end result for all of the children was a marked transformation in how they viewed the world. “This was classic Canoemobile,” said Wilderness Inquiry outdoor leader Mark Hennager. “Most of the students hadn’t paddled before and came to the river with trepidation. After they got comfortable, they were laughing and racing and asking questions about the birds, trees, and fish. This was outdoor learning at its best!”

Canoemobile started on the Mississippi River in Minnesota, but has since grown to serve more than 50 communities from San Francisco to the Bronx, reaching more than 180,000 students from coast to coast. The four CCCN cities and the outdoor learning that takes place in them through Canoemobile can serve as a model for the involvement of even more cities — and thousands more children — in the future. Wilderness Inquiry looks forward to working with additional cities and the CCCN initiative to expose even more students, especially those of color and low income, to outdoor learning on the nation’s urban waterways.

cccn blog authorAbout the Author: Greg Lais is the Founder and Executive Director of Wilderness Inquiry. Through 39 years of leading the non-profit, he has directly impacted more than 480,000 lives—including many underserved youth and people with disabilities.