Ely, planted on the edge of Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area, is about 250 miles away from Brooklyn Park. Call it a healthy four-hour drive.
For students at Prairie Seeds Academy and Noble Academy, the wilderness moved decidedly closer this June, when the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness No Bounds to the Boundary Waters program offered students hands-on, outdoor workshops on paddling and portaging on local bodies of water.
Students from Noble Academy met at Fish Lake Regional Park in Maple Grove to practice their camping and boating skills June 7. Students from Prairie Seeds Academy did the same at Theodore Wirth Park in Minneapolis June 12.
“Basically our goal is to try to decrease barriers to the Boundary Waters,” said Alison Nyenhuis, education manager at Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness. “It’s pretty far away, it requires a lot of specific skills, specific equipment. … We try to meet students and schools where they are and bring our instruction and experiences to them.”
In addition to canoeing, “we have food and availability to have a picnic together,” Nyenhuis said. “And then we do portaging like you’d do in the Boundary Waters – carrying the boat – some campsite skills like hanging a bear bag or putting up a tarp, and then also some other science-oriented things with wildlife and adaptation, so we had different stations in the park and families could kind of drop in to each one.”
The relatively new program also provides students with scholarships for trips to the BWCA.
“This year was a little bit different with COVID, which kind of required us to be a little creative and figure out ways we could connect students to the Boundary Waters without actually bringing them to the Boundary Waters,” Nyenhuis said.
“We provided these Boundary Waters days in the Twin Cities. We brought canoes and portaging and different kinds of campsite skills to different parks around the Twin Cities area. Students were able to come there with their households, with their family to try out these things.”
Friends of the Boundary Waters partnered with the city of Minneapolis parks and recreation department and Three Rivers Park District to provide the resources to create the events.
The program also offers in-classroom work for students.
“We are encountering students throughout the school year. Their teachers would sign up for a program and we’d be able to provide some hands-on opportunities in their classrooms to learn about the Boundary Waters,” Nyenhuis said. “A lot of teachers are looking for local, Minnesota examples to be able to apply their curriculum to.”
Prairie Seeds wanted to partner with Friends of the Boundary Waters because the school was interested in doing engaging in environmental outreach and getting students more comfortable outdoors, said Lindsey Mieras, science and instructional coach.
“A lot of urban students really struggle with being comfortable in the natural environment,” she said. “We have a couple teachers who have used some of their online resources because they created different types of lessons that go along with outdoor education and learning, so we use the Boundary Waters lessons within our classroom to spark more of an interest and bring the outdoors inside.”
Many urban students are starting from square one when it comes to a wilderness camping experience. Students with limited outdoor experience can be afraid to step outside of their comfort zones and into the woods, according to Mieras.
“You can see it in their faces,” Mieras said. “Their initial reaction to going outdoors, they’re fearful, their scared of the woods. Today I took a group outside, and they’re like, ‘Are there any bears out here?’”
The local classes allow students to dip their toes in the canoeing experience without being thrust fully out into the northern wilderness.
“That’s why I think the local experiences are so important, because I don’t want to bring a student up to the Boundary Waters and have them experience so many new things, so many first-time experiences at once,” Nyenhuis said. “And so to be able to have some expertise and some confidence built up in different areas of that trip, and then be able to apply it to a new area of the Boundary Waters is ideal.”
Students surveyed by Prairie Seeds have more interest in nature and were concerned about the state of the natural environment since getting more involved with outdoor education, Mieras said.
Friends of the Boundary Waters received a grant from the Stand With Asians community fund to support the work with Prairie Seeds and Noble, both of which have significant numbers of Hmong students.
Beyond immediate educational impacts, the programming has helped open students’ eyes to potential career opportunities they hadn’t considered, Mieras said.
The organization “put us in connection with this (Hmong American) woman who has a career in environmental education, that has done backpacking and she was able to do a virtual assembly with us this year and talk about her experiences and connection to nature,” Mieras said.
“Students really loved seeing someone kind of young, out of college, that is part of their heritage and seeing that, oh, this is a different career that’s out there that I’ve never thought of.”
The response from students and families has been “really positive,” Nyenhuis said. “Families have been really excited to have time to come out and try something different.”
Later this summer, Friends of the Boundary Waters plans to fully fund 30 student trips to the Boundary Waters.
Follow Kevin Miller on Facebook at facebook.com/mnsunpost