Students prepare to paddle along the Christina River.

Canoemobile visits

Youngsters spend day on the Christina, learning about urban waterway

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2:37 p.m., Oct. 15, 2013--A brilliant blue sky streaked with thin white clouds reflected off the quiet, brown waters of the Christina River.

But the stillness of the water was soon broken. Several hand-made cedar canoes filled with middle-schoolers navigated down an invisible highway along Wilmington’s Riverfront.

The children from Wilmington’s Prestige Academy and later, East Side Charter, paddled -- awkwardly at first -- but soon found their rhythm as they explored their city in a brand-new way.

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The canoes came from Wilderness Inquiry, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that brought its Canoemobile to town Tuesday. Wilmington is one of the organization’s 17 stops along a tour of urban waterways across the U.S.

Filled with 24 cedar canoes, the Canoemobile channels the spirit of the Bookmobile, bringing environmental literacy to city kids across the country.

The group joined several Delaware partners at the Wilmington Youth Rowing Association (WYRA), including the University of Delaware’s Water Resources Agency, a program unit of the Institute for Public Administration in the School of Public Policy and Administration, the Delaware Nature Society, a historian from the Kalmar Nyckel and a local-area youth mentor, giving the kids a half-day of education and fun.

Roughly 120 children streamed off yellow school buses that day to take part in the event held on the river in their backyard.

They were split into groups, half of them spending time rotating through fun, educational stations set up inside WYRA’s two-story Riverfront facility and the rest out on the water. Later, the groups switched, so each child could take part in all the day’s activities.

“We want to help them see the river is not a scary thing,” said Matt Heuer, Wilderness Inquiry’s Canoemobile logistics coordinator.

The organization’s goal is to expose as many children to the wilderness within their city boundaries as they can. Wilderness Inquiry has been around for more than three decades, working with kids in Minnesota, partnering with that state’s school districts to get kids out on their waterways, tying what they learn in the classroom about history, ecology and chemistry to real, hands-on experiences.

Ultimately, the idea is to get youngsters linked to internships and jobs.

The Canoemobile is a new idea. This year is its second full season traveling to cities around the country to educate kids growing up near urban waters.

“We want it to be that catalyst,” Heuer said.

The Christina has long been a source of legend and mystery for many Wilmington-area children. And its dirty history of pollution from industrial, manufacturing and farming practices has earned the river a poor reputation in the eyes of many.

“A couple of boys drowned in the river some years ago, so they spread the word that there were dragons and sharks in the river,” said Faith Pizor, executive director of WYRA. “That went on for years as part of a community effort to keep kids out of the river.” 

Tuesday’s visit from Wilderness Inquiry was meant to dispel the urban legends and get the kids out on the water, helping them learn about the its rich history and the abundant wildlife habitat it provides. 

They learned about water quality from UD’s Martha Narvaez, Water Resources Agency associate policy scientist, about ecology and wildlife from the Nature Society, about the region’s water-centric history from Kalmar Nyckel historian and educator, Sam Heed, and practiced their rowing technique with Dwayne Adams, CEO and founder of Breaking Barriers.

To teach about water quality, Narvaez and her UD graduate student assistants, Kate Miller and Catherine Cruz-Ortiz, came up with a bit of friendly competition to spark the kids’ interest. They created a game called Water Quality Quizzo and designed boards on which the kids played.

Narvaez and her students took turns enlightening the middle schoolers, teaching them that high levels of dissolved oxygen, low levels of phosphorus and nitrate, a greater proportion of “good bugs” and low numbers of bacteria make for a healthy river.

The teens were split into three teams and the first to correctly match water conditions to healthy, threatened and impaired waters won bragging rights. There was candy for all at the end.

“We want to get them to think,” said Narvaez. “These are the parameters we use to assess water quality and we want to give them the idea of how you look at a river or stream when trying to keep it healthy.”

For Miller, a water science and policy graduate student, being at the event helped make her feel like what she is doing is reaching others.

Many of the kids who participated had never been on the river before. 

“This is their backyard,” Narvaez said. “We want to teach them that what they are doing on land is running into the water.”

Pizor has been on the Christina since 1983. Back then, people weren’t as aware their habits on land could have such a profound impact on the aqueous environment. But things have changed since that time.

“In those days, the smell of the river was horrible,” Pizor said. “I got here at 6 a.m. today and the fish were jumping. There’s a lot of life here.”

Still, don’t eat the fish. The water still has high bacteria levels, Narvaez said, and the fish are unsafe to consume.

The kids learned more about how pollutants from Delaware’s farms and industries impacted the river’s wildlife from the Delaware Nature Society station. John Harrod, the society’s manager, and Ed Rohrbach showed off pelts from animals that rely on the river for survival and passed around wriggling turtles and scaly fish for the kids to touch.

“Let me tell you a little bit about the river you’re about to be on,” said Harrod to the eager kids. “I’ll tell you about some of the ways the habitat can be impacted.”

But the highlight for many of the kids -- most of whom had never paddled a canoe before -- was getting out in the water in one of the hand-crafted boats.

Great egrets and kingfishers swooped down to the water or rested on docks and dead tree limbs along the banks of the murky river. The kids piled onto the boats, 10 in each, secure in their life jackets and anchored by their teachers and guides from Wilderness Inquiry.

Before they got there, some professed their excitement. Others revealed their fears: “Am I going to fall in? Am I going to get wet?”

But when they came back from their hour-and-a-half on the water, the fear had dissipated, replaced by enthusiasm.

“I thought the experience was very cool, to be in the water seeing different kinds of creatures and seeing how the water is very important to them,” said 13-year-old Zihere Owens.

Fourteen-year-old Jai James was surprised by how much endurance it took to paddle the boat but also by how much he liked it. He reflected on what he’d learned.

“To be honest, I knew nothing about water quality,” he said. “I didn’t know phosphorus and nitrate were bad for the water. I never knew the river had wildlife.

“I had a lot of fun in the water, I have to admit.”

That is what it’s all about.

Article by Kelly April Tyrrell

Photos by Evan Krape

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