ONE HOT MORNING LAST JULY, I found myself sitting in a yellow school bus with a small army of bleary-eyed high-school students, rumbling toward Cleary Lake Regional Park for an overnight “urban wilderness adventure.” We hadn’t gotten to the adventure part yet, so the students were wearing the sort of jaded expressions that D. H. Lawrence once called the “know-it-all state of mind,” that half-awake teenage leer that suggests a mood somewhere between contempt and disdain.
The kids were from South, Southwest, Roosevelt, Washburn, and North high schools, and were part of a summer “Credit Recovery Program” (what we used to call summer school) sponsored by Wilderness Inquiry, the Mississippi River Fund, and the Minneapolis Public Schools. Credits aside, the purpose of these trips is to give urban youth a chance to experience nature and, with any luck, whet their appetite for activities that don’t require an Xbox and a speedy Internet connection.
When the bus huffed to a stop in the park, the students stood, yawned, and stretched, then spilled out across the verdant green campsite, swinging their backpacks or dragging enormous duffels and roller bags. They dumped their luggage in a heap, simultaneously shedding their droopy attitudes. A football arced through the thick air, and the students began to shout, giggle, tumble, and goof around as they pawed through piles of sleeping bags and mats. Four Wilderness Inquiry guides sorted the students into groups of three, allowing friends to cluster, then sent them off to assemble their tents. “Boys on this side of the campfire ring, girls over there.”
The guides let the students fumble with tent poles and zippers, and stepped in only when asked. Soon, nylon shelters were popping up across the green, forming a small village of colorful domes.
MORE THAN A FIELD TRIP
Under the direction of Sarah Oppelt, the trip leader, we all gathered to hold hands in an introductory game that involved catching our neighbor’s middle finger. We each went around shouting our names and our favorite band. Rihanna, Adam Lambert, Big Sean, and Kid Cudi reigned; the Rolling Stones did not. Then came the rules. Respect preceded every instruction: Respect oneself, respect the environment, respect each other.
Within minutes the students were swimming in Cleary Lake. Their hard stares had vanished, and the clumps of friends that had first huddled together, reluctant to mingle, now gleefully dispersed across the beach. The subsequent learning activities, meals, reflections, and s’mores were carefully calibrated to provide a blend of action and downtime. Prior to the trip, the staff discussed preparatory concerns—everything from meals, drug-abuse issues, and medical emergencies—and had created a plan to address them all.
These overnight camping excursions are much more than a field trip or “fresh air” experience. The students also earn credits for classes in math, science, English, social studies, and health. It is technically “school,” after all, so there are expectations that the students will do more than simply have fun.
SCIENCE SAYS TO GO PLAY OUTSIDE
Spending time outdoors isn’t just fun for kids—it’s important. “A growing body of research documents the costs to children, teenagers, and society when youth are not engaged in active play and exploration outdoors,” says Marti Erickson, co-founder with Richard Louv of the Children and Nature Network. A developmental psychologist and retired University of Minnesota professor, Erickson says the costs are reflected in many ways:
• Skyrocketing childhood obesity rates
• Difficulty concentrating and learning in the class-room (especially for those with ADHD)
• Overmedication of children for behavioral “disorders”
• A marked statistical increase in childhood depression
• Missed learning opportunities that build on natural curiosity and encourage creativity
• Lower test scores in the natural sciences
• Lack of confidence and poor body image, especially in teenagers
• A new generation of adults—and voters—who may be less inclined to care about, or inform themselves about, the environment and environmental issues
NATURE DEFICIT DISORDER
Beyond academics, the program also seeks to bridge the enormous gap between urban youth and the great outdoors. As child-advocacy expert Richard Louv writes in his ground-breaking work, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, many of the seemingly unrelated maladies of the younger generation—obesity, depression, behavioral disorders—may be linked in part to a highly wired environment that is detached from nature. Whereas every generation before them has spent a substantial portion of their free time outside (because there wasn’t much to do inside), the younger generation’s fascination with video games, television, computers, laptops, and smartphones has lured them indoors, where they now spend the majority of their time. Louv calls this lack of exposure to natural beauty and the sensory experience of being outdoors “nature deficit disorder.” Drawing on extensive research, Louv makes a compelling case that regularly interacting with nature is essential to healthy physical and emotional development.
The Urban Wilderness Canoe Adventures program is specifically designed to expose urban youths to outdoor activities they might otherwise never experience, and it deliberately takes place in parks near the city in order to impress upon kids that in the Twin Cities, beautiful natural habitats are never far away.
In only its fourth year, Urban Wilderness Canoe Adventures has led day trips down the Mississippi River for more than 22,000 youths. Older students are offered longer excursions that include an overnight at Fort Snelling. Those who have completed both day and overnight trips have an opportunity to apply for a much grander trip to Glacier National Park.
The program is being studied by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement. According to last year’s U of M report, the Urban Wilderness Canoe Adventures program significantly improved students’ classroom attendance, increased their interest in the natural world, and heightened their commitment to take care of the city’s natural resources.
“Something happens to city kids when they get into nature,” says Mike Hastert, an educational associate who accompanied his students on the trip, along with his colleague Maria Vallejo. Hastert has a scruffy blond beard, wears his baseball cap backwards, and is just beefy enough to look tough. He considers these outings to be a big job perk, even though he is giving up part of his own summer to do them. At one point I remarked that the kids seemed more engaged and lively than they were on the bus, and he nodded in agreement.
“The walls come down,” Hastert says. “They don’t have to cling to whatever identity they have at school, athlete or hipster. They don’t have to stick in a clique. And they see me as a regular guy, tossing the football and telling jokes—not the one nagging them about schedules and homework.”
RESPECT AND S’MORES
Back on the lake, a group of students shouted “Whoa!” as an egret floated to a graceful landing on the opposite bank. Michael, a sophomore who wouldn’t let go of his girlfriend Diniqua’s hand all morning, bobbed in the water playing a game of Marco Polo, while Diniqua played tag on the shore. Only Renuke, a girl from Nepal who wore a pink knee-length top and ankle-length pants, sat apart under a tree, engrossed in a paperback book. “It’s not common for us to undress,” she told me.
After lunch, the students split into groups. Under the direction of national park ranger Mary Blitzer, some wandered off with a Wilderness Inquiry guide to study Fort Snelling’s voyageurs and traders. Another group headed to the lakeshore to test the water for nitrogen levels and turbidity, as well as plant and aquatic life. They scooped up freshwater mussels, clams, and crayfish in tiny nets, and even found a baby catfish. For a math assignment, they measured trees and calculated their height using geometry and ratios. The groups that correctly answered all the questions got to splash the guide; those who didn’t got doused themselves.
Come evening, the students were divided into cooking and cleanup crews. I listened as three girls—Clarisse, Anna, and Renuke—shredded cheese and chopped tomatoes. They talked about what they cook at home—Nepalese soups, Swedish meatballs, pot roast, fajitas—sketching between them a sort of international culinary map. Before we ate, we gathered again in a circle to hold hands through announcements for the evening’s schedule, then observed a moment of silence. The “chow circle” was broken after we “passed the pulse,” squeezing the palm of our neighbor to the left. There was plenty of food—burritos with spiced chicken, guacamole, salsa, cheese, refried beans, lettuce, chopped tomatoes, sour cream—and we ate a lot.
Science on the lake: Students test water and investigate plant and animal life.
I complimented Diniqua on her rings, one on each finger, and she had a story for each. “This one my boyfriend Michael just gave me. This one is from my mom’s boyfriend. This I found on the ground,” she told me. “This is the one my dad was wearing when he was shot. My mom took it off his finger before he went to the morgue, so it never got washed,” she explained. “It’s like his skin is still right next to mine. I keep it on all the time.” The table went silent; I didn’t know what to say. “It was bad,” she added. “But he’s in a better place.” “When do we get s’mores?” Clarissa chimed in.
Kyle, a lean and lanky junior with an afro that added five inches to his height, hopped up on his table to announce that it was time for the cleaning crew to gather. He told us all to wipe the food off our plates into the trash before dunking them in the wash water. “Respect me, please,” he shouted. After cleanup, the students broke into five groups and were prompted by the Wilderness Inquiry guides to reflect on their day. Swimming was a highlight, they agreed. So was meeting new people. Several admitted that they wanted to be more patient and more accepting of their peers. Some even claimed they wanted to be better listeners.
The UWCA summer-school program has introduced the Mississippi River to more than 5,000 ethnically diverse students, many of them students of color living in high levels of poverty.
• 77 percent of the participating students report that the experience changed their attitude about the environment and science.
• 70 percent of their teachers say they witnessed far deeper engagement in the students’ work after completing the program.
We gathered around the campfire, roasting marshmallows and chomping on s’mores, telling jokes and a ghost story. Fireflies danced through the gathering darkness, and Renuke remarked that “they look like a celebration.” By 10 pm, the students were in their tents, and there was some quiet chattering late into the night. The 7 am wake-up came early. Several students hugged their guides; three boys who were strangers before the trip hopped up on one of the tables to sing and dance. Mike Hastert gathered us all for a photo, and he sent it out to everyone within an hour of our return.
Precisely how this trip will affect these kids and their choices in the future is uncertain, but the value of the trip, however intangible, is hard to overstate. “These are gateway experiences,” says Greg Lais, founder of Wilderness Inquiry. “We don’t expect one trip will change someone’s life, but it will provide access. Sure, the Boundary Waters are great. Yellowstone is amazing. But we have tremendous opportunities to be in nature right in our own city.”
Paul Labovitz, superintendent for the Mississippi National Park and Recreation Area (MNPRA), points out the untapped potential that the Mississippi River offers all of us in the Twin Cities. “Most people don’t appreciate that there’s a national park—the MNPRA—in their own backyard,” he says. “The UWCA is a wonderful way for us to get these kids on the river. Out there, it can feel truly wild. In some stretches, there’s not a car or person in sight. That’s the first step to getting them to care about this magnificent place.”
For some students, their Wilderness Inquiry experience not only gives them an appreciation of the natural world, it gives them a job. “One thing that never gets talked about when we consider outdoor education is the opportunity for careers, especially for ‘non-traditional users.’” Lais says. “This is a seven- or eight-billion-dollar industry screaming for diversity.”
Staff member Josh Garabunda, who is African American and organized the Cleary Lake trip, first experienced these adventures as a public high-school student. He then became a volunteer and eventually worked his way into a career as an outdoor guide.
The collaborative nature of the program has also allowed each partner to reach out to a broader group of funding sources. A recent fundraiser sponsored by Wilderness Inquiry and Mississippi River Fund, hosted by Garrison Keillor and Mayors Coleman and Rybak, drew a standing-room-only crowd. The EPA, the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, and a range of corporate foundations, government, and nonprofit organizations are continuing their support as well.
Because the program has had some success, it’s now on the radar of other public schools looking for innovative ways to get their kids outdoors. “Barriers come down in the wilderness,” Lais says. “This is not just about conservation, it’s about the kids. And people from all sides of the table are emboldened by our success. The schools, park officials, politicians, parents, [and] volunteers are all stepping up and saying that they’d like to get involved. These kinds of experiences are crucial for everyone.” He pauses for a moment. “But stewardship isn’t the entire point—being a complete human being is.”
Other Nature Programs
The UWCA, offered through Minneapolis and St. Paul Public Schools, is one of many nature-oriented programs available to local young people. Following are several education-oriented programs that offer similar experiences:
AUDUBON CENTER OF THE NORTH WOODS
Located in Sandstone, the Audubon Center offers a variety of programs for students K–12. audubon-center.com
Youth, teens, and families can have a range of experiences—on the Mississippi River, in the Boundary Waters, and in the Apostle Islands. wildernessinquiry.org
WOLF RIDGE ENVIRONMENTAL LEARNING CENTER
The center provides a number of experiences and camps along the North Shore for students K–12. wolf-ridge.org
YMCA TWIN CITIES CAMPS
The YMCA offers nature experiences for both younger children (including Outdoor Living Skills Camp, Canoe Camp) and for teens (Leaders in Training, Canoeing Camp). ymcatwincities.org
Located outside Grand Marais on West Bearskin Lake in the Boundary Waters, Camp Menogyn offers a range of eight- to 50-day wilderness experiences. ymcatwincities.org
Located outside Ely, the camp offers a variety of 10- to 50-day wilderness experiences similar to Camp Menogyn. ymcatwincities.org
YOUTH FARM AND MARKET PROJECT
Aimed at youth ages 9–24, this project provides year-round youth-development programming including experiential education, urban agriculture, gardening, and greenhouses. Farm stays are optional. youthfarm.net