As the six kids gathered at the river landing, I saw looks of shyness, uncertainty, and excitement. The paddling lesson brought looks of concentration and some confusion, then boredom when they got it. As John Kudlas, our favorite river ecology instructor, taught about water quality, the faces of these mostly sixth and seventh graders showed focused interest. Here, with school out and a classroom without walls, I could see them learning.
This is the second annual overnight canoe trip for kids ages 12-18 down the Namekagon River. It is still a partnership between the Cable Natural History Museum, the National Park Service, and Canoes on Wheels. Just as before, we caught macroinvertebrates (the immature stages of insects that spend part of their life in the water before gaining wings and flight), and thankfully, their results still showed that the river is healthy.
As we paddled, I noticed marsh marigolds in bloom, scouring rushes starting to poke up through the water surface, and a couple dragonflies. Birds sang from every bush and tree in a cacophony of joy (and aggression, alarm, and plain chattiness).
I marveled at the bald eagle, sitting calmly in the white pine as we floated underneath. I noticed the power and grace with which the great blue heron rose from its hunting spot. I observed the many aquatic plants still just barely breaking the river’s surface, while last year, with the early spring, they had been in bloom or already gone to seed.
But what do the kids see? Sometimes I worry that in this age of television, video games, and internet, kids will lose interest in nature, and lose the ability to notice things in the unfamiliar complexity of the wild.
So I was excited when, at the campsite on our second morning, the kids took the small digital cameras I gave them and eagerly disappeared into the woods to take photos. Besides giving them an excuse to look closer, compose a frame, and enter our Living Light Photo contest this summer, it also gave me a glimpse behind their eyes.
What did they notice? The first photos on each camera show smiling faces as the kids “labeled’ their cameras with a self-portrait. Then come the images of sparkling water and green trees, sunlight glinting off the rapids the kids were all eager to run, and the river disappearing around corner into the great unknown.
The photos show close-ups of bugs – a dragonfly and stonefly that came to visit our picnic table. This was neat, because they’d found the aquatic nymphs of each insect with John the day before. One photo even shows a backlit oak leaf, its veins and chlorophyll glowing in the morning sun.
The fascinating patterns made by leaves in patch of jewelweed must have captured the attention of one youngster who used their juicy stems to sooth mosquito bites. His observant eye also caught psychedelic reflections of light and leaves on a pool of water between three rocks.
Here we see a proud angler, pole and tackle box in hand; there we see his sister, stretched out on her belly, taking photos from an ant’s eye view. On her camera, we find that photo of the grass jungle, each delicate seed head silhouetted against the clear blue sky. Other, taller bunches of grass arch gracefully in the morning sun.
For a different view, several kids looked up into the trees, and caught the magnificence of old growth white pines reaching their gnarled braches to the sky. Then they looked down, and captured gaywings (small, hot-pink wildflowers) in ethereal morning light, and pure white starflowers against the backdrop of a fallen log.
Some photos are blurry, a few are crooked, and some include the photographer’s thumb, but overall, I’m thrilled. These kids can still see nature. They will be our next generation of scientists, conservationists, journalists, and engineers. Their ability to see nature will help make sure that it is not overlooked.