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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Canoemobile brings outdoor classroom to town


VERMILION RESERVATION- The lawn behind the Vermilion Social Center was buzzing last Friday. Not with bees, but with busy elementary students from Tower-Soudan and Northeast Range.
The sun was shining, and temps were in the low 70s. The lake was calm.
The students were on a mission to learn the rudiments of canoeing. After being fitted with life jackets and child-sized paddles, they learned how to hold the paddle and practiced canoe strokes on land. When it was time to hit the lake, they were paired up and marched, two-by-two, onto the dock, ready to lower themselves one at a time into the 24-foot Voyageur style canoes parked alongside the dock. They cruised along on Pike Bay and then returned to shore, giggling and smiling, and maybe trying to splash their canoe-mate.
This is the mission of the Wilderness Inquiries Canoemobile program. For over 12 years, this Twin Cities-based nonprofit has been bringing its “floating classroom” to schools around the country and taking them out onto their local waterways, ten people at a time (that’s how many fit in each canoe).
“Our goal is to get students canoeing out on their local waters,” said Wilderness Inquiries (WI) youth program coordinator Shelby Swan. “We are getting them connected to the outdoors.”
Typically, Swan said, about 80-percent of the children they work with during the year have never been in a canoe before. And this was true for many of the area children, though none seemed afraid to give it a try.
Conquering fears and doing something new is another goal of the program, and the seven WI staffers in Tower on Sept. 30 said this is often the most rewarding part of their day, as they get to watch a child who had tentatively slipped into the canoe seat return back to the dock with a huge smile on their face.
The TS and NER students were clearly having a banner day. Out on the water they attempted to paddle in sync with their canoe-mates, but no one seemed to mind when an errant paddle dip splashed water back into the canoe. Some even seemed disappointed that the canoe got them back to shore without getting wet.
Onshore, students got some time with Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine Assistant Park Manager Jim DeVries, who gave a series of talks on area mammals, using furs and skulls from the park’s collection. WI often partners with other nonprofits as well as organizations like the DNR during their Canoemobile visits. The Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters also sent a staffer to help out at the event.
WI has four separate Canoemobile set-ups, and they travel throughout the country in the spring and fall working with school groups. In the summer, WI hosts events throughout the Twin Cities area for school-aged children.
This is the Canoemobile’s second trip to Tower. They last visited in 2016. These events cost about $2,500 per day, Swan said. But usually, the majority of this cost is funded with state and grant dollars, Swan said, and schools are only required to chip in a smaller amount. The program also receives funding from the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund.


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