AUSTIN — When asked if they'd been on the Cedar River before, only a few hands shot up from a group of about 45 Austin Public School fifth-graders. When asked if they were nervous, the number of hands jumped immensely.

That was all about to change as boat leaders took students for a quick canoe trip on the river as part of the Canoemobile outdoor leader for the program brought to Austin through funding from Mower County. Each student would be part of a group -- usually of nine students and an adult leader -- that put paddles to water and learned some important lessons about canoeing and the environment.

"In this county, this is the only waterway that goes through it," said Brian Meyer, primary outdoor leader for the canoe rig for Wilderness Inquiry, an outdoor education organization that uses 24-foot canoes as a floating classroom. "Most of these kids don't know about the recreational opportunities out here."

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That means everything from going out on the water to fishing from the banks, watching for wild animals or just enjoying a picnic.

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"It's giving kids this idea of ownership of their public lands so that they feel encouraged to make use of these places," Meyer said.

Tim Ruzek, Water Plan & Outreach Coordinator for Mower SWCD and the Cedar River Watershed District, said the goal is to teach the students an appreciation for the natural world as well as give them a lesson -- often their first -- on how to handle a canoe.

Ruzek said he talks to the students about the county's "Fish Clean" campaign, encouraging them to speak up when they see someone littering near the river.

Because Mower County is one of four Minnesota counties without a natural lake, being on the water is not as big a part of the culture for kids. But programs like the Canoemobile help youngsters appreciate the rivers, streams and lakes.

A group of Austin students paddle during a canoe lesson with Wilderness Inquiry’s Canoemobile on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021, at Ramsey Mill Pond in Austin. Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
A group of Austin students paddle during a canoe lesson with Wilderness Inquiry’s Canoemobile on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021, at Ramsey Mill Pond in Austin. Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

"Kids aren't on the water much at all," he said. "This is a great opportunity that fills a need, I think, getting kids out and experiencing it in a safe way."

Usually, Austin students take part in the program each May during fourth grade, but the program this fall is to expose those kids who missed the Canoemobile over the past two years due to COVID-19.

Fernando Mendoza and Omega Othow, both 11, said they loved when their group turned a circle in the canoe.

"One side had to paddle backwards, and the other side had to paddle forward," Fernando said, explaining the technique.

The two, along with Finley Kemmerick, 11, had never been river before but loved the experience. Finley said when they went fast was her favorite part.

Tim Ruzek, Water Planner at Mower Soil & Water Conservation District and Cedar River Watershed District, speaks with Austin students before canoe lessons with Wilderness Inquiry’s Canoemobile on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021, at Ramsey Mill Pond in Austin. Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Tim Ruzek, Water Planner at Mower Soil & Water Conservation District and Cedar River Watershed District, speaks with Austin students before canoe lessons with Wilderness Inquiry’s Canoemobile on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021, at Ramsey Mill Pond in Austin. Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

Fifth-grade teacher Kaia Kossman said her students had been talking about the canoe experience all week and wished they'd been able to spend the whole day on the water. Kossman said she appreciated the wilderness experts from Wilderness Inquiry coming out and giving these important lessons to her students.

"This is a very new experience for most of these kids," she said. "We, as teachers, appreciate this so much."

When Aryanna Reyes, 10, came off the river, she was all smiles about the experience.

"The best part was when we were turning, and we saw the turtles," she said.