Kayaking Kids: Nonprofits Give Urban Youth a Chance to Explore

This is a guest post by Denise Poyer of Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association.

The kids got off the bus and looked around nervously at the flowing river, the trees and the lack of buildings. After spraying themselves thoroughly with insect repellent, they started asking me questions: Miss, will we go over the waterfall? Miss, are there alligators in that water? Miss, is something going to bite me? Some just came right out and said: I’m really scared!

Uncertainty sparked these expressions. The young people were about to kayak for the first time in their lives—participants in a summer program designed to give city kids with limited opportunities to explore the natural world a chance to learn a new outdoor skill.

Paddlers on the Wood River. Image by Meg Kerr.
The program was established with the help of a small matching grant from National Wildlife Federation (NWF). Environment Council of Rhode Island, an NWF affiliate, proposed the project last winter and invited Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association (WPWA) to be its partner.

Kayaking Basics

With more than 15 years of experience taking people out on the water, WPWA is equipped to engage even the most timid of beginners. Our Hope Valley, Rhode Island, campus on the Wood River is the ideal location to teach anyone to paddle:

  • Barberville Dam creates a quiet, pond-like setting in front of the public launch site at the facility;
  • Within a short paddle upstream, the river is full of marsh plants and wildlife;
  • Our fleet of 30 single-person plastic boats can accommodate large and small groups; and
  • We have staff trained by the American Canoe Association in Kayak Instruction Level I, the basics of paddling.

Outreach was made to organizations serving urban and/or at-risk youth in the communities of Providence, Pawtucket, Central Falls, Woonsocket and West Warwick to identify program participants. From May to August 2013, Environment Council of Rhode Island and WPWA hosted 182 young people, ages 10-17, on twelve paddles of the Wood River. The youth were given instructions in kayak paddling before being launched into boats for the 60- to 90-minute journey upstream. During the paddles, river ecology and qualities of clean water systems were discussed. Participants saw painted turtles, great blue herons, osprey, aquatic flowering plants and numerous damselflies and dragonflies.

This project was an unqualified success. Most of the children attending had rarely been out of the city and never had a chance to engage in an outdoor activity on the river. While many arrived with expressions of fear and anxiety, they quickly caught on to the basics of paddling. They got to try something very much out of their comfort level and learn a little about the Wood River.

Helping Hands

I credit much of this success to the volunteers who helped out with the paddles. They made the kids feel at ease, coaxing them gently onto the water, watching them and giving them instructions as needed. One volunteer stood in the cold water in May, holding onto a young girl’s boat and letting her grip his hand until she felt comfortable enough to start paddling on her own. Other volunteers pulled stuck boats off sandbars and towed kids who were getting tired. They helped keep the trips organized and safe.

The best question I heard, while returning to the dock one day, was from a young man who asked: Miss, when do we get to do this again?

Denise Poyer. Image by Meg Kerr.
Image by Meg Kerr.

About the Author

Denise Poyer, an avid outdoorswoman, has been the program director for Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association since 1994. During her tenure, she has developed all of the association’s educational programs and many of its recreational ones. She also manages WPWA’s water-quality monitoring and scientific research programs. Denise has a bachelor’s degree (Wildlife Biology and Environmental Management) and a master’s degree (Environmental Education) from the University of Rhode Island. Her specialty is watershed education.

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