It’s a Floating Classroom! Canoemobile Teaches Water Lessons

Canoemobile helps Michigan City and other communities teach kids about water resources by sending them onto their local streams, paddles in hand.
It’s a Floating Classroom! Canoemobile Teaches Water Lessons
Elementary students prepare for their paddle of Trail Creek.

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The stained waters of Trail Creek are typically still and often unnoticed. That stillness was broken last September as several handmade cedar canoes filled with students navigated its waters in Michigan City, Indiana.

The children — elementary, middle and high schoolers —­ paddled awkwardly at first but soon found their rhythm as they explored their city and learned to appreciate the water flowing through it in a brand-new way.

The canoes came from Wilderness Inquiry, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that travels the country with its Canoemobile, bringing environmental education and outdoor learning experiences to underserved urban youth. Michigan City was among 26 stops across the U.S. in 2014.

“These kids don’t realize that the water coming out of the tap is ultimately the same water that they pass by every day,” says Nicole Messacar, an education coordinator with the LaPorte County Soil and Water Conservation District. “Most of Michigan City’s drinking water comes from Lake Michigan. Canoemobile gives these students a productive opportunity to experience the resource and be out on the water.”

Spreading the water word

Wilderness Inquiry aims to expose as many children as possible to the wilderness within their city boundaries. For more than three decades it has partnered with Minnesota 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. The ultimate idea is to link youngsters’ internships with jobs in the water sector.

“There is a great need for candidates to fill jobs in water and wastewater treatment, and also with watershed management and water biology,” says Ashley Pethan, a program coordinator for Canoemobile. “We are trying to teach kids not only where their water comes from, but also that they are a major part of it. We teach them what they can do to leave a positive impact on the water supply.”

This is Canoemobile’s fourth full season traveling the country to educate kids growing up near urban waters. “We want it to be that catalyst,” Pethan says. “If what we do gets these kids talking and thinking about the water that’s all around them, then we’ve accomplished something.”

Utility partners

Pethan says urban waterways can become sources of legend and mystery for children. Many streams have histories of pollution from industrial, manufacturing and farming practices that have earned them a poor reputation, despite local attempts to clean them. Wilderness Inquiry means to dispel the past and get the kids out on the water to learn about their streams’ rich history and the abundant wildlife habitat they provide.

“We typically partner with local utilities and organizations,” says Pethan. “The program is catered to each community, and we work with the partners to provide other educational outreach around the paddling excursions.”

In Michigan City, program partners included the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, the LaPorte County Soil and Water Conservation District, Urban Waters, the Izaak Walton League, the Shirley Heinze Land Trust, Dunes Learning Center, the National Park Service, Michigan City Parks, and the Northwest Indiana Paddling Association.

Activities included Adopt a Beach and river cleanups, learning about Lake Michigan’s food web, seeing into the history of the fur trade era, and practicing kayak technique and safety. Operators from the Michigan City Sanitary District showed students how to perform water-quality tests like those done on the city’s drinking water and wastewater.   

Immediate feedback

“We wanted to get them to think,” says Messacar. “We wanted the students to know that there are parameters used to assess water quality and give them an idea of how you look at a river or stream when trying to keep it healthy.”

District personnel used a portable “hydro lab” to test the water samples taken by the students, interpreting the findings almost immediately.

“I work with children all the time, and one of the first questions I always ask is ‘Where does your water come from?’” says Messacar. “For the most part, the answer I get from the kids before activities such as Canoemobile is ‘I don’t know’ or ‘From the faucet.’ Afterwards, the answers are typically much more detailed. That’s what we’re looking for.”

Springboard to education

Many of the Michigan City kids had never been on the river before. “This is their backyard,” Messacar says. “We want to teach them that what they are doing on land is running into the water.” She says that partnering with programs like Canoemobile can help municipalities that lack the budget or personnel for educational outreach.

For the past several years, Michigan City has used crowdfunding programs such as and to help raise funds to bring the program to town. The partner organizations then filled in the gaps, creating a week’s worth of activities for anyone from grade-schoolers to senior citizens.
“Once we started talking about the program around the community, many organizations were excited to jump on board, either through donations or helping run a portion of the outreach,” says Messacar. “Really all it takes sometimes is that first push to get the ball rolling.”

The right partners

Pethan says that while Canoemobile began as an urban program, it can be molded to fit any size municipality. “We view Canoemobile as a supplement to other water outreach a municipality offers,” she says. “Our goal is to communicate extensively with each community we visit beforehand and collaborate with all our partners to reach toward a collective goal.”

Besides hosting Canoemobile, Messacar leads student field trips to watershed areas and water and wastewater treatment facilities, sends out monthly newsletters about water conservation and watershed education, and leads other events such as canoe and kayak activities framed around Coastal Awareness Month in June.

The key to Michigan City’s outreach has been finding the right partners who believe in the overall mission. “Obviously bringing in quality outside programming can be costly, and with a limited budget for outreach, the key is finding willing partners that appreciate the cause and leveraging the funds you have available as efficiently as possible,” she says.

“You have to be passionate, though. You have to let people know first, that the water is there, and second, how important it really is.”
To learn about the Canoemobile outreach program, visit


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