Getting their Feet Wet: Chicago Youth Take Canoemobile on the Little Calumet

By Kari Lydersen

The teenagers gathered on the shore of the Little Calumet River were full of excited energy. They were preparing to pile into wide wooden canoes for a trip down the river. For many of them it was their first time in a canoe or even in a boat of any kind.

“I just want to get out and try something new,” said student Eddie Howlett, 18. “The river looks beautiful.”

Eddie Howlett and Reilleekah Jackson
Eddie Howlett and Reilleekah Jackson

His friend Reilleekah Jackson, 20, said she was nervous about the trip but looking forward to seeing frogs, turtles or even a snake on the river. Adolphus Ford, 17, was likewise nervous but “hoping to see some fishes.” He’d never been on a boat before, though he knows family members in Mississippi and Minnesota have. They are all students at Charles Hamilton Houston High School, an alternative high school run by the vaunted alternative education organization Prologue Inc. in Chicago.

Many of these teens and young adults live not far from the Little Calumet, the Chicago River or other Chicago Area Waterways, but like many Chicagoans they have largely avoided or been essentially unaware of the waterways. And growing up in some of Chicago’s most marginalized and low-income areas, many of them have spent little time out in nature or even beyond their own neighborhoods.

Hence the paddle down the Little Calumet on September 16, hosted by the Minneapolis-based organization Wilderness Inquiry in partnership with the National Park Service and the Chicago group Openlands, was about a lot more than getting some exercise and fresh air.

Organizers described it as a potentially life-changing experience, or at least a way to broaden horizons, boost confidence and introduce youth to an activity that could become a life-long hobby. Since canoeing is an intensely social, team sport, it is also a way for students who deal with violence and gang tensions among peers to build trust, communication and cooperation.

“These young people from the inner city come from challenged backgrounds, they have gangs, pregnant teens, broken homes, parents in the penal system,” said Carlos Estes, a senior advisor for Prologue. “Many have never gone to downtown Chicago, no less the lake or river. To experience a healthy environment promotes calm and healing. This is monumental.”

“This is a way to understand wildlife and ecology for kids who might be afraid to get into a boat,” added National Park Service Rivers, Trails and Conservation Service officer Diane Banta, while trying to convince a girl to try canoeing despite her fringed suede sandal-boats, which couldn’t get wet. “When you get out on the water, you suddenly have a different perspective.”

Before hitting the water, the students did bonding and trust-building exercises, like holding a strap in a circle and leaning back at a 45 degree angle, or supporting students actually walking above the group on a platform of upraised hands.

Wilderness Inquiry does canoe trips for kids from inner city urban environments around the country, including paddles on the Detroit River, the Harlem River, the Bronx River, the Anacostia River in Washington D.C. and the Delaware River in Philadelphia. Wilderness Inquiry has been working with the National Park Service on “Canoemobile” (#canoemobile) programs inspired by “bookmobiles,” with the aim of introducing urban kids to canoeing.

These trips serve multiple purposes. Along with the aforementioned benefits for the youth involved, they also help draw attention to and increase appreciation of urban waterways that face multiple challenges themselves.

“This is very much the story of a lot of urban rivers, that have been used for transportation and industry for decades and now a lot of that has gone away and we get a chance to reinvigorate them and show they have value as recreational destinations,” said Wilderness Inquiry outdoor educator Mark Hennager. “We’re bringing the next generation of stewards to this environment.”

The Little Calumet is part of a Chicago waterway system facing multiple issues including sewage releases, invasive species, industrial legacy pollution and current industrial traffic. The stretch of the river hosting the canoe trip flows right by the Altgeld Gardens public housing project – where President Obama worked as a young community organizer – and a sprawling landfill. But it is also surprisingly bucolic and peaceful, with lush trees hanging over the banks and a large white egret stepping gracefully through the shallows as the students boarded the canoes. The melancholy sound of train whistles from the nearby tracks that cross the river on a quaint railroad bridge meld with the sound of cicadas on a summer day. Enjoying and understanding this stretch of river will become a common undertaking in future years, as Prologue is in the process of launching William Tillman Maritime Alternative High School – reportedly the only maritime school in the state – next to the small marina where the canoe trip started.

The school is named in honor of Tillman, a sailor who during the Civil War valiantly defeated Confederate rebels who had boarded a merchant ship and would have likely enslaved him.

“Can I rock the boat?” asked one student as they walked down to the Little Calumet. “Metaphorically,” replied the Wilderness Inquiry guide. Others joked about whether they would survive the trip. Hennager said that most students are quickly won over to canoeing despite any initial reservations.

“Their body language says a lot,” he said. “When they are going out, there are a lot of looks of apprehension and fear, ‘Are we going to tip?’ Then when they’re coming back they’re all smiles and asking when they can get out on the water again.”

Posted September 14, 2016