Students explore urban wilderness

Eli Golden was impressed at how straight and fast ten people could paddle down the Mississippi River when everyone worked together.

            “I’m big on nature and there was some big nature on this river today,” said Golden of his three and half hours of paddling in a 23-foot Voyageur styled 10-passenger canoe.

            Nicole Buffington loves anything to do with the outdoors but she believes the Mississippi River is “one nasty old river.”

            She couldn’t believe how dirty the water was and she didn’t want to touch it.

            “There was all this foamy stuff, logs, a dead fish and a tire floating out there. I ain’t coming back to this place unless I’m in a big old boat. I mean, if they want people to come down here they better get someone to clean it up,” said Buffington.

            Dasha Williams like the work out.

            “I’m athletic, I like to work out. I loved all this paddled. It was cool. I’d do it again.” said Williams.

            Derius Burnett said he had the time of this life but he felt the trip was way too long.

            “I didn’t like running into that spider nest in the branches,” concluded Burnett.

            These were a few of the comments from the 23 students of City South Alternative High School from South Minneapolis after participating in the Urban Wilderness Canoe Adventure, a joint project of the Minneapolis School District, Wilderness Inquiry and the National Park Service.

            Their goal is to acquaint 10,000 metropolitan students with canoeing on the river every year.

            “So many urban children grow up so near to this incredible natural resource without ever getting a chance to experience it,” said Paul Labovitz, Park Superintendent of the Mississippi National River and Recreation area which follows the river for 72 miles from Ramsey to Hastings including downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul.

            “As we become more and more of an urban culture it is all the more important to get young people involved in the outdoors. Very few national parks have as easy access to so many people as we do in this metropolitan area. This gives us a unique opportunity to reach out to young people literally in walking distance from the schoolyard,” said Labovitz.

            The City South students and teachers met park officials and guides from Wilderness Inquiry who were waiting at the University of Minnesota Boathouse with four large cedar strip canoes built at Northwest Canoe in St. Paul.

            Since over half of the students had ever been in a boat they were trained in how to put on a life vest, use a paddle and enter and exit a canoe by the head guide Rob Rossi.

            Park Ranger Dave Wiggens briefed the students on the cultural and natural history of this stretch of the river pointing out the it was carved out of the limestone by the St. Anthony dam and once used by the Voyageurs hauling furs to market.

            “This area was prized by the fur traders because they could get to Lake Superior, St. Louis or Hudson Bay from here. In 1820 the United States built Fort Snelling to protect the area from the British fur trading companies,” said Wiggens.

            Even though the canoes are stable and the guides used step stools to help the students into the canoe, there was plenty of screaming  and shouting as the students boarded their canoes.

            Once in place, the crews felt secure and paddled swiftly along the west bank.

            Halfway along they stopped on a sandy beach for a shore lunch and naturalist talk by Ranger Wiggens.

            Wiggens told them that before sewage treatment plants raw sewage would lay in the waters above the Ford dam so think a dog could walk across it. Now the area is much cleaner and the home of 30 fish varieties, eagles and birds.

            “The river has a long way to go before it is like it once was but it is certainly much better than it was 50 years ago,” said Wiggens.

            He discussed the dangers of invasive plant species growing along the river brought in by boats and wildlife. Garlic mustard, popular with many South Minneapolis cooks for salads, is an invasive species.

            A highlight of the trip was a ride through the Mississippi Lock and Dam #1 where the water levels dropped 30 feet. Just after passing the confluence of Minnehaha Creek the group crossed the river to put out at Hidden Falls Park.

            The program hopes to run two to three trips a week through the spring and summer of this year.

            The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources also participates in the project feeling it future generations need to know the importance of the outdoors.

            "The more people you get to appreciate nature on a river like this, the more advocates you've got for its protection," said Erik Wrede, director of DNR Rivers.

            "This a great example of a multi-agency partnership. It's anywhere from the local park system to the DNR to nonprofits to schools working to involve students in what we believe is very important."


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