Closing Michigan's 'adventure gap': Floating classroom gets hundreds of students out on the water

This is a joint story with our sister publication, Metromode
It’s a sunny October afternoon on Belle Isle, and about 80 middle school and high school students are getting ready to go canoeing. Only a few of them have been in a canoe before, and most haven’t been in any kind of boat.

One by one, eight high school students from the Academy of the Americas step into a canoe, while instructors hold it firmly against the dock so it doesn’t wobble. After they get settled, an instructor directs them to start paddling.

As they get the hang of it and paddle around Lake Okonoka, right next to the Detroit River, one student says to another, “This is relaxing. I’m not gonna lie.”

“This is a workout!” one of them says.

Two students talk about the differences between canoeing and kayaking. One of them says, “Yeah, I want to try kayaking.”

Another says, “Is this open to the public? Can we come back here?”

Belle Isle is open to the public, but — as the organizers of this event know — many Detroiters don’t have easy access to high-quality outdoor spaces, or they don’t know what parks and other outdoor spaces are available to them. 

These students are exploring a Detroit park by canoe thanks to Canoemobile, a program run by the St. Paul, Minnesota-based organization Wilderness Inquiry. Canoemobile drives its canoes around the country and collaborates with local organizations to plan field trips.

For this event, Detroit Outdoors and the U.S. Forest Service led the planning (and the Forest Service provided funding). Other partners include the Belle Isle Nature Center, Friends of the Detroit River, Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, Camp Burt Shurly, and Friends of the Rouge.  

From October 10 to 12, Canoemobile took about 500 Detroit and Hamtramck public school students out in canoes at three locations: Belle Isle, the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, and Camp Burt Shurly in Livingston County.

Canoemobile and the local partner organizations share the goal of getting kids outside and helping them build connections to nature — and in this case, “nearby nature” that’s not far from where they live. 

“For some of them, maybe they've seen this water before, but they've never interacted with it in that way,” says Garrett Dempsey, program director of Detroit Outdoors, a program of the Sierra Club’s Detroit Inspiring Connections Outdoors, the City of Detroit Parks and Recreation Department, and the YMCA of Metropolitan Detroit. 

“They can have this powerful experience and then want to come back to this park with their family,” Dempsey says. “They might be the one that says, ‘Hey, let's go down that trail. I actually know what's down there. Let's go see this beaver lodge that's down there, because I did that when I was here last October.’ So they can become the leaders for their friends and their family when they come to this park, because they've got this relationship with this park.”

An Academy of the Americas student holds a crayfish that one of them found in the rocks along the shoreline after canoeing.

While the experience allows students to get immersed in nature, it also allows them to see their city in a new way. “The reality is, for so many of our kids, there is this really negative image of Detroit and this place that they call home,” says Monica DeGarmo, a teacher at the Academy of the Americas who accompanied her students. “And I think it's so important for them to come to these beautiful spaces and hopefully be affirmed that there's absolutely reason to take pride in where they come from, and that there are these places for them to enjoy the beauty of nature. You don't have to drive out to the suburbs or drive up to Northern Michigan to experience it.”

A growing body of research shows that time spent in nature can improve physical and mental health and overall well-being. Some studies have even found that nature can promote cognitive development and improve kids’ ability to pay attention. 

Students from the Academy of the Americas learn about watersheds and water trails from a Friends of the Rouge staff member.“There is so much research that supports not only that kids being outside and enjoying nature allows them to bridge connections to what they're learning in the classroom, but also just from a personal development perspective—for them to have an opportunity to go out of their comfort zone. It’s so formative in their development,” DeGarmo says. 

The teachers involved often incorporate the Canoemobile trip into what the kids are learning in the classroom. DeGarmo teaches English, and her students read some Indigenous poetry about nature and read about the history of Belle Isle before the trip. 

“It brings learning to life,” says Christine Rettler, senior manager of youth programs at Wilderness Inquiry. “It becomes this kind of floating classroom out in nearby nature.”

Along with time in the canoes, the program includes land-based “stations,” where kids learn about topics such as water safety, watersheds, water quality, and plants and trees. At one station, this group learned about public lands from Lisa Perez, Detroit Urban Connections coordinator with the U.S. Forest Service. She explained to the students that public lands belong to them, and then she led the group on a short hike, pointing out interesting facts about what they saw. Some of the kids stopped to take photos of the brightly colored trees.

“Outdoor field trips are really affirming for different types of learners,” says Jac Kyle of Detroit Outdoors and Detroit Parks and Recreation. “You can see the people who are just so hands on and so drawn to the — I need to touch it, do it, feel it to actually understand it,” she says.

At one station, Kyle talked to the students about macroinvertebrates, and they used long nets to scoop some out from under the water. One student found a water penny and was excited about being the one to discover it, Kyle says. 

The Canoemobile program also allows for social and emotional growth, Rettler says. Sometimes, the kids have to work together to solve problems, and “you're conquering your fears and doing something that's challenging — and realizing you can be in that stretch zone of your comfort level,” but with a support system behind you, she says. 

Helping Detroit kids experience the outdoors is important for another reason as well: the “adventure gap.” People of color are underrepresented in outdoor recreation activities, and many people of color see these activities as something for white people, not for them.  

“We know nature has so many benefits,” Perez says. “We need to help facilitate it with our audiences because of that barrier or lack of exposure they've had.” 

And, with Canoemobile, this group of like-minded local organizations found ways to facilitate this connection. “Having a partner like Canoemobile bring these boats right into Detroit makes it so much easier for the schools, or the organizations that work with youth, to get the kids out onto the water,” Dempsey says.
But the point is not to make these kids avid canoeists. If the experience sparks or deepens an interest in outdoor activities, they may be drawn to something else.

"Different things are going to speak to different youth. Some of them may love this so much they're gonna find another way to do it. Some of them, maybe they'd rather do something else — maybe they'd rather hike or go camping,” Dempsey says. This is what Detroit Outdoors is aiming for, he says: “to connect kids with the outdoors or with nature in a way that's meaningful for them.”

Once the group was back on land, one of the students turned to the teacher and said, “We’re going to do this again next year, right?”

All photos by Allison Torres Burtka.
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