Photo by Chris Rogers
Miller Mentoring student Brooke Schmidt admires a waterlily with Jackie Bieszk of Project Get Outdoors. Students explored Mississippi River backwaters, drawing maps of their explorations,
just as French explorers did 440 years ago
"What do you think, McKenna, would you rather be here or at the mall?" Project Get Outdoors leader Jackie Bieszk asked soon-to-be-seventh-grader, McKenna Scharmach, as the two selected canoe paddles. Scharmach's response was aloof, but when she and her cohort piled into canoes and explored the backwaters, flooded woods, and open channel of McNally's Landing, her enthusiasm shined.
A leader pointed out a waterlily blossom and Scharmach peered over the gunwale to examine its pure-white folds. "Watch out for the flower!" she cried urgently as another canoe neared the beautiful, floating blossom.
Winona middle school student Veronika Doyal had never been canoeing before. "I'm a little scared" of falling in, she said as the group prepared to launch. Still, it was going to be "cool." Peering off the dock beside her, student Megan Alford was all confidence. "I love the water."
McKenna, Veronika, and Megan were part of about a dozen Miller Mentoring students who paddled around the Mississippi River backwaters as part of a Project Get Outdoors program, with help from Wenonah Canoe, Saint Mary's University, and the Trester Trolley.
The middle school-age students learned about famed Frenchmen Jolliet and Marquette's exploration of the Mississippi River before setting out on an adventure of their own. With Algonquin phrases in the curriculum and a professional map-maker in attendance, students had no lack of heady educational experiences to partake in, but that all seemed to melt away when they got on the water and just, well, paddled around.
That is the point for Project Get Outdoors, an outdoor education group that operates programs year-round with various area schools and organizations. The group's mission requires little explanation: get kids outside.
"Today people are extremely disconnected from nature," said Bieszk of the value of getting outdoors. "How many kids spend the day watching TV? These kids are socializing," she said as she gestured to the troop of youngsters giggling about how they look in lifejackets and which canoe is going to be fastest. "They are using their imaginations and getting exercise. They're not just staring at a screen but actually thinking and discussing."
After close to an hour on the water, Scharmach's canoe turned onto the main channel of the river. She gazed at the bluffs of Wisconsin. When asked how she felt about being there compared to being indoors, she said, "At my home, it's kind of boring because you don't have anything to do except eat, sleep, and play video games. So it's kind of a reward for me."
Project Get Outdoors leader Steve Bachler remarked, "The goal is to get kids out into nature — to get them engaged with it and less afraid of it."