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Canoemobile operators at the Wilmington Riverfront prepare a boat for city schoolchildren to use in a day of learning about the Christina River.
A brilliant blue sky streaked with thin
white clouds reflected off the quiet, brown waters of the Christina
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.
The canoes came from Wilderness Inquiry, a Minneapolis-based
nonprofit that brought its Canoemobile to town in October. 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
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
"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.
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
UD graduate student Catherine Cruz-Ortiz teaches the Wilmington children about water quality issues involving the Christina.
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
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
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."
or 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
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
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.