What It's All About

Partnerships and a fleet of 24' canoes bring lessons to life in Northwest Indiana

Words by Amy Androff, Pictures by Dunes Learning Center

On the first truly autumn day of the season, Mighty Acorns students walked side-by-side towards an hour long adventure at Marquette Park Lagoon with the Canoemobile, a traveling fleet of 24-foot canoes with a mission to make outdoor experiences accessible to all.

Introductions and learning games started the adventure but giggles slowed to nervous smiles when the personal floatation devices (PFDs) and paddles came out. Being in a canoe was a first time experience for most of the students and jittery comments blew through the air as the breeze off of Lake Michigan gusted towards the lagoon. One by one, students tentatively approached and wobbled onto their boats, unsure of their feet and wet surroundings. Wisps of “I’m scared of the water” swirled around while they seated. Then, as the Canoemobile educator pushed off the shore and student paddles touched the water for the first time, bystanders could almost see a tangible connection establish between the student and the water. It was as if they were shaking hands for the first time. Shoulders began to drop, wobbly smiles spread into kindled grins and rounded eyes turned into beaming gazes as students discovered a new environment.

Dunes Learning Center partnered with the National Park Service, Urban Waters and Wilderness Inquiry to make this opportunity available to students participating in the Mighty Acorns program, as well as local area schools, youth clubs and scout groups. Of the thirty-five urban areas Canoemobile currently serves, Dunes Learning Center has become one of its top national organizers through their tireless campaign and coordinating efforts. When asked how Dunes Learning Center made this possible, Geof Benson, Executive Director, said, “We leveraged all our contacts and resources to get everyone in the region involved. It’s all about relationships, some existing and some now new. And we’re all better for it!”

“Canoemobile pairs perfectly with our educational approach of experiential learning. Getting kids outdoors and allowing nature to bring learning to life is what Dunes Learning Center is all about. With a canoe for their classroom, students were able to learn about their local watershed through first hand observation.”

Canoemobile’s focus is on accessibility and inclusion, a cornerstone value of Dunes Learning Center. Benson described one of his favorite Canoemobile moments, when nineteen special needs kids from Westside High School in Gary were able to participate. “It was incredible to see those kids out there on the water,” he added.

"I think for a lot of people the experience they have with Canoemobile gives them a reason to care about the nature around them.”

Over the course of four weeks, more than 4,500 students from Northwest Indiana communities were able to experience Canoemobile this year. In addition to the student trips, Dunes Learning Center hosted a community paddle on Wolf Lake and Lake George. Participants not only paddled their local waterways, but also spent time on land learning about native ecosystems, invasive species and the role everyone plays in impacting their watersheds. All the while, palpable connections were made because placing a canoe paddle into someone’s hand transformed the environment from background “scenery” into a personal “relationship.”      

Outdoor educator, Allie Dart, explained how this transformative moment happens, “When given the chance to spend time in nature—explore, make observations, touch, smell, listen to the environment around them, people notice things they wouldn't otherwise. Giving people, especially young people, the opportunity to see their waterways from a new perspective helps them form a connection with those environments. Having meaningful, fun experiences within those natural environments crystalizes that connection. I think for a lot of people the experience they have with Canoemobile gives them a reason to care about the nature around them.”

From across the lagoon, a student’s voice rang out in her excitement. When her group reached the dock, she departed with shoulders back, sure of her footing and with a smile nearly as wide as her canoe. She triumphantly held out her paddle and looked into my camera while she proclaimed, “I’m coming back with my family for my birthday!” It was a dramatic change from the start of her trip when she whispered about being afraid of the water. Seeing her joy and exuberance, Geof turned to me smiling and said, “This is what it’s all about.”

Made possible by funding from the National Park Service and program partners LaPorte County Soil and Water Conservation District, Northwest Indiana Paddling Association, Trail Creek Watershed Partnership, Michigan City Sanitary District, Michigan City Area Schools, Michigan City Port Authority, Michigan City Enrichment Corporation, Michigan City Parks & Recreation Department, Indiana Department of Natural Resources, Gary Stormwater Management District, Hammond Port Authority, Gary Parks Department, Gary Community School Corporation, School City of Hammond, School City of East Chicago, School City of Hobart, Hobart Parks Department, Hobart Stormwater Management District, City of Hobart, Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission, ArcelorMittal, Foundations of East Chicago, Field Museum, Shirley Heinze Land Trust, Legacy Foundation, DOI-VISTA and the Northwest Indiana Urban Waters Federal Partnership.