It was the summer of 2011 when recent St. Olaf graduates, Natalie Warren and Ann Raiho, passed through Granite Falls during a 2,000 mile long journey that would lay claim to a spot in the history books. Following the route trailblazed by Eric Sevareid and Walter Port in 1930, and depicted in Sevareid's subsequent novel "Canoeing with the Cree", the pair spent 85 days canoeing from Fort Snelling to the Hudson Bay, to become the first and only females to recreate the arduous journey.
Two years later and Warren, originally of Miami, Flo., has returned to the area with the Wild River Academy in hopes of helping others to connect, learn and be inspired by nature toward the pursuit of their own dreams.
Based out of Minneapolis, Warren started Wild River Academy with fellow outdoor enthusiasts Nick Ryan of Stevens Point, Wis., and Anna Johnson of Evanston, Ill., in 2012. With a motto of: "Know the Land, Know the Water, Know Yourself", the Academy's focus is bringing high school students on canoe trips down the Minnesota River, wherein the river valley ecosystem and its human inhabitants all serve as teachers in an "outdoor classroom".
According to Warren, local farmers, community members and environmental agencies are all involved in an effort to provide a full spectrum of issues and viewpoints.
So far, interest in trips has mainly come from kids that live in the Cities, but Warren would really like to involve more local students. "I think it could be very impactful to take out local kids who actually live in the area," she said.
Warren explained that she felt trips would be more personal for teenagers that live in the area because the river is something they've been accustomed to their entire lives, and now they'd get to understand and experience it in a whole new way. Learning about the history of the land and the people would have an even greater significance because it's the history of their land and their people. Plus, after going out on the water, and learning how to canoe, the students can take their friends and family out on the same route and share their knowledge and experiences.
The next opportunity for local high schoolers to take a trip with the Wild River Academy is Monday through Wednesday, August 12-14.
The excursion begins at Moonstone Farm near Montevideo. Owned by Richard Handeen and Audrey Arner, the farm provides an example of a variety of natural landscapes and land stewardship practices that are featured on the pair's 240 acres of property, which sustains grass fed-beef, wine grapes and alfalfa, amongst other prairie wildlife and vegetation.
"They show how you can work with the land and don't have to work around it," Warren noted.
Warren said that Handeen and Arner welcome the visits as well as the opportunity to share their knowledge about the history of the land and its people. In addition, the wide open spaces provide an ideal place for teaching outdoor basics and for camping. In the evenings, music, bonfires and the like add to the experience.
Page 2 of 2 - After getting acquainted during the first night of camping, the group depart Moonstone Farm the following morning and head over to Vicksburg County Park to meet with a DNR Minnaqua intern. These interns spend their summers educating youth about fishing and aquatic habitats. As a component of the journey, high schoolers will be educated on the river's vast diversity of fish species and also receive some angling pointers on how you can catch them.
Once the students have all had a chance to try their hand at fishing, they begin the canoeing part of their adventure. They will get to paddle down a breathtaking stretch of the Minnesota River, stopping near Redwood Falls for the night at a canoe access only campground. There, they will spend time just hanging out, singing songs, and talking.
"I've been kind of surprised with how deep the conversation goes," Warren said. For her, that's one of the best parts of these trips.
On the last day of this upcoming adventure, participants will canoe to their final destination in Morton where a DNR Master Naturalist is set to talk to the group about how macro-invertebrates––small animals with no backbone––can be used to show changes in the water flow and the water quality. In addition, he'll share some of his knowledge of the Minnesota River Valley itself. Then, the gear will be packed into vehicles and students will be brought to Morton, Granite Falls, or Minneapolis to be picked up.
Three days may not seem like much time to make a life altering impact, but Warren says that the immersion into the environment lays a seed that makes an instantly noticeable impression, and that can have a transformative effect emerge over the years. Her hope is that the kids take away a newfound love and respect for nature, but also the ability to enjoy the simple things in life.
Warren says that when you're out in a canoe, "you have to be entertained by what's around you." After all, there's no television or computer out there to occupy your time. Having students look back at the lifestyles of previous inhabitants of the river valley gives them a chance to see the world from a variety of perspectives that combine to create a wholistic viewpoint.
With all that they've learned Warren and the rest of Wild River Academy hope that students will be inspired to return to the outdoors and to pursue their own dreams. As their motto says "Know the Land, Know the Water, Know Yourself".
Anyone interested in the High School Trip or needing more information can email Warren at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about Wild River Academy and their mission, go to wildriveracademy.com