Canoemobile guides GRPS students along the Grand River

More than 1,000 eighth graders in the Grand Rapids Public Schools will get a chance to see their city from a new perspective next week: from a canoe. A program called Canoemobile, which brings canoes to urban areas across the country for hands-on learning experiences, is setting up at Riverside Park May 8 to 12. The experience aims to foster an appreciation of nature, boost performance and engagement in school, and build participants’ confidence, teamwork, and relationships with others.
More than 1,000 eighth graders in the Grand Rapids Public Schools will get a chance to see their city from a new perspective next week: from a canoe. A program called Canoemobile, which brings canoes to urban areas across the country for hands-on learning experiences, is setting up at Riverside Park May 8 to 12.

Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation is funding the program, which will include canoeing and other educational activities, such as learning about the river, water-quality testing, hiking, and identifying trees. The experience aims to foster an appreciation of nature, boost performance and engagement in school, and build participants’ confidence, teamwork, and relationships with others. Canoemobile is run by Wilderness Inquiry, an organization that leads outdoor adventures.

Laura Cleypool“It could not come at a more perfect time in our city’s history, with the current momentum to restore the rapids and activate the river corridor,” says GR Parks and Recreation Business Manager Laura Cleypool. The river has had an industrial feel, but by taking the dam out, restoring the rapids, and making areas along the river inviting for people to spend time in, the city wants to make the river into "more of a community-based asset,” she says.

The goal of programs like Canoemobile is to redefine the community’s relationship with the river, to create accessibility for recreation. “Even though the river is at the heart of the city, very few kids have ever been exposed to canoeing or kayaking on it”—or anywhere else, for that matter, Cleypool says. “We want to introduce them to the benefits of the river and the recreational opportunities available.”

GRPS students may not have access to such benefits—especially the 79 percent of them who live below the poverty line. “A large majority of students have never been to Lake Michigan,” despite its proximity, says John Helmholdt, executive director of communications and external affairs for the Grand Rapids Public Schools. Canoemobile is a way to “connect them with our Grand River and expose them to what it’s like to canoe—and to take advantage of this amazing resource that’s right in their backyard,” he says.

The program will help kids appreciate nature and the landscape of their community. “They’ll be able to get in that boat—many for the first time—and paddle out onto their river,” Helmholdt says.
Wilderness Inquiry designed Canoemobile to engage underserved youth in urban rivers and environments close to where they live. Staff will lead participants in six handmade, 24-foot Voyageur canoes.

Over its nearly 10 years in operation, the program has succeeded in engaging youth. Staff engage participants through short surveys on site, as well as through longer evaluations that teachers complete after the event. After their Canoemobile experience, teachers reported that 87 percent of their students were more engaged in school, and 70 percent developed strong bonds with peers, their community, and their environment.

Meg Krueger, education programs manager with Wilderness Inquiry, says the anecdotes they heard from teachers often sound like this: “That student who had been struggling through the year, I noticed him take on a different role in the boat, and since then, in the classroom, I’ve seen higher levels of engagement, he’s more interested, and it changed the dynamic of what was expected in the classroom.” She adds that teachers have reported improved attendance as well.

The data from participants was surprising, notes Krueger. “We thought the greatest impact would be the outdoors, and connecting to a river, and seeing your city from a new perspective, but it ended up being more that students were connecting to the people—Wilderness Inquiry leaders, educators from other agencies, as well as their teachers, in this environment outside of the classroom,” she says.
“By far the most significant effect has been social-emotional learning—growing as a person, and the capacity to learn from new experiences,” says Mark Hennager, who has led Canoemobile events from San Francisco to New York and will lead the program in Grand Rapids.

Hennager says he has noticed participants open up to the experience. “You see it in their body language. At first, they’re tense, and there’s a lot of fear,” he says. The first time the boat rocks, they’re scared. But, “by the end, a lot of people don’t want to get off the boat.”

“I tell people that, if this is your first time in a canoe and you’re nervous, that’s okay. That’s a good thing, because you’re pushing yourself to try something new,” Hennager says. “The risk-taking—and trying new experiences—is the highlight of the program.”

In addition to interacting with their teachers and peers, students will learn about tree identification, tree planting, and tree health. Noting that Riverside Park is a historical area for logging, Krueger says the event will include logging history activities from the Grand Rapids Public Museum. “It’s always fun when a land-based program is really relevant to the place where we are.” GR Environmental Services and the Blandford Nature Center also will lead activities.

Down the line, students’ interest in environmental stewardship might translate into careers in the environment and a desire to give back. “It can lay the foundation for people caring about the environment,” says Hennager.

“As eighth graders, they are starting to think about what they want to do with their lives and their future,” says Cleypool. “This may even spark someone’s interest in environmental science.”
The experience also might break down stereotypes about who is suited to outdoor recreation—who “belongs” in nature. In outdoor recreational activities such as canoeing, black and Latino Americans are underrepresented; participants are overwhelmingly white. Grand Rapids students are 37 percent Hispanic/Latino, 33 percent African American, and 22 percent Caucasian. “We are all about equity and inclusion, and we want to expose our students to these enrichment opportunities,” says Helmholdt. “Our region is rich with water resources.”

Wilderness Inquiry goes to great lengths to be inclusive—of people with disabilities and people who have various needs. “We were founded on the idea of inclusion and access for everyone to the outdoors. So our organization has always had the approach of ‘anyone, anywhere, anytime,’” says Krueger.

The canoes are wide and sturdy, so participants who use wheelchairs can fit the wheelchair in, and staff have adaptive equipment available for people who need other accommodations. The staff are trained to accommodate a wide range of abilities. Helmholdt notes that some of the students planning to participate have physical disabilities that require such accommodations.
Canoemobile began in Minneapolis-St. Paul, in a partnership with the National Park Service and the school district. It has grown to serve more than 40 cities, but it has kept the model of working with federal, state, and local organizations to deliver the programming. “It became this great convener of community, youth, and environmental agencies,” Krueger says. “We expanded using the model of the Bookmobile, which brought literacy to rural areas of the U.S.”

Hennager explains that Canoemobile is a community-driven enterprise, and Wilderness Inquiry works closely with partner organizations in the communities they visit—before and after the event. “Wilderness Inquiry views Canoemobile as a bridge to connect local groups to their waterways in order to create a floating classroom,” he says.

Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss initiated the idea of bringing Canoemobile to the city after hearing about it at a convention. This will be Canoemobile’s first time here, but it often visits cities year after year. Sometimes, the programs include overnight camping, and some involve other members of the community, in addition to students.

The city is treating this year as a pilot year, and it might consider expanding the program in later years. In any case, the school district is developing ways to engage students in similar “active learning opportunities,” says Helmholdt. “Canoemobile is just the beginning of more and more opportunities,” thanks to the efforts of the parks department, the mayor, the Grand Rapids Student Advancement Foundation—and as part of the GR Forward plan, he says.
In the coming months, the city will purchase kayaks and stand-up paddleboards and offer classes. “The hope in the near future is to also have places for people to rent canoes and kayaks, as well as ride bicycles along the river,” says Cleypool. The department is in the process of finalizing its strategic master plan, which “addresses the need to connect the river to neighborhoods through a network of streets, trails, and paths,” she says.

One day on and around a river might not have a profound effect on all the participants, but it might get them thinking about possibilities they hadn’t considered before. “It’s an introductory experience,” says Hennager. “It plants the seeds for future engagement and development.”

Key to the Canoemobile experience is that gets participants to appreciate “nearby nature”—it allows them to “connect with their landscape in a new way,” says Hennager. He notes that in the Twin Cities, when Canoemobile began, “the river was a feature of the landscape but not part of people’s lives and how they recreated.”

Now, Grand Rapids is poised to make the Grand River a greater part of people’s lives.

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.

Allison Torres Burtka is a freelance writer and editor in Metro Detroit. Her online portfolio is accessible here.

Photography by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio and Wilderness Inquiry.
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