Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

A student gets a close look at crustaceans, fish and aquatic insects. © Robert Queen

A student gets a close look at crustaceans, fish and aquatic insects.
© Robert Queen

August 2009

Romp on the river

Adventure Day offers a Huck Finn mix of activities for kids and families on the Mississippi.

Ruth Nissen

On a warm day last July, 185 children with parents in tow descended on a small city park in Lansing, Iowa just across the Mississippi River from De Soto, Wisconsin. Though they gathered at a ball diamond complete with bleachers, these kids weren't here to play ball. They came from towns and cities in Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota to follow an enticing promise: a whole day on the Mississippi River enjoying a Huckleberry Finn-type Adventure Day. Under blue skies with a gentle breeze and temperatures that climbed to the eighties, the kids warmed up to the chance to just be kids, to get wet and dirty while pollywogging for mussels, netting fish, chasing jumping frogs and floating down the broad river; the stuff that dreams, memories and great stories are made of.

After a quick registration, the kids scurried to heaping piles where they donned life vests, which were sorted by size, then headed to the bleachers to find their seat in groups sorted by age from the two- to six-year-old "Bluegills" on up to the 17-year-old "Eagles." After listening to a short introduction and a wide open schedule of events, the kids went off in a flurry of energy and excitement to find their boats and new friends for the day.

This day of outdoor adventure was free to all participants, sponsored by the Friends of Pool 9 on the Mississippi River, a group with members in both Wisconsin and Iowa who had been planning the event since January with the help of Tim Loose, refuge operations specialist, from the McGregor District of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge.

Previously, Loose spearheaded a yearly Mississippi River Festival for school groups along with partners from neighboring federal and state natural resource agencies. The festival, which has been held annually since 2001, alternates locations between Iowa and Wisconsin, and has been wildly successful, hosting 500-700 middle- and high-school-aged students. It has been so popular that a second education festival catering to fourth and fifth graders was started at the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge, 20 miles north of La Crosse. Loose had long noticed that the highlight for the kids, regardless of their age, was getting out on the water in boats, and if at all possible, getting wet in the process.

With that in mind, Loose and John Verdon, president of the Friends of Pool 9 and a retired high school science teacher, thought it would be good to go one step further. They wanted to offer kids the freedom and the kind of experience that Verdon had enjoyed as a child, more of an unstructured experience in nature with ample time to explore; something today's kids don't often get to do even though research shows play in nature is especially important for developing capacities for creativity, problem-solving and intellectual development, besides being just plain fun.

Verdon has had a lifelong interest in the Mississippi River. As a boy, he spent years exploring the labyrinth of backwaters helping his father, who was a commercial fisherman. In the process, his dad had shared his knowledge of the river and a deep-rooted love of nature.

The other members of the Friends of Pool 9 have similar stories from living in the towns that border this stretch of the river in Iowa and Wisconsin. "They belong to the Friends group because they want to share their love of the river and give back to the resource," Verdon says. Prior to this project, the Friends have tackled river clean-ups and refurbished public beaches on upper Pool 9. The members were well aware that although they spent much of their free time on the river fishing, hunting, boating or camping with their families, or had even earned their living on the water, times had changed. Today, many kids who live in the three-state area, have never been out on the water or seen the Mississippi River except from a highway – even those kids who live in towns perched on the bluffs along the river.

Since Loose had contacts among conservation agency partners from the Mississippi River Festival, he rounded up government boats, drivers and presenters from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Wisconsin's and Iowa's departments of Natural Resources, the Clayton County (Iowa) Conservation Board, the Allamakee County (Iowa) Conservation Board, the Vernon County Land and Water Conservation Department, and the National Audubon Society. These agency people are willing to make the time to pitch in for both the river festival and the Adventure Day to pass on their enthusiasm for the river environment, their belief in conservation and the hope that kindling a connection to the river will kindle a commitment to its protection.

The Friends of Pool 9 used their own pontoon boats and skiffs to ferry kids and parents in separate boats. The kids piled into two Mississippi Explorer Boats – large, shallow drafting tour boats that could shuttle 25 kids at a time to each adventure area. The Friends donated about $500 worth of boat use and gasoline to the day and secured a $4,500 grant from the Allamakee County Community Foundation (ACCF). They purchased life vests for each child for the day and organized lunch for 250 people to be held on a sandy beach island in the river. Since the kids were going to be around water, the Friends organized and took on assignments as group leaders and station assistants to cover safety. They also had law enforcement officers on hand to coordinate any emergency or medical response. Last, but not least, they chose a rain date, which was a smart move since high water flooded out the original event day in June 2008.

When the day finally arrived, it was hard to tell who was more excited, the 30 Friends of Pool 9 or the kids. It was quite a flotilla that set off for adventure. As John Verdon said as we left the shore, "The best thing is parents and grandparents are with them on a great day on the river!"

Hop to it! Youngsters gently handle toads, frogs, and turtles, and observe other wildlife on their river day. © Ruth Nissen
Hop to it! Youngsters gently handle toads, frogs, and turtles, and observe other wildlife on their river day.
© Ruth Nissen

Children were divided into eight groups according to age. The "Catfish," average age 6, headed off to check out frogs, toads and aquatic insects with presenters Angie Reid, naturalist with Clayton County Conservation Board and Dan Mohn, Iowa DNR. Reid told the kids how to handle the frogs to avoid injuring them: "Pass the bucket around, if you touch him, use one clean finger as sand is ouch on the frogís skin."

Touching is important because children have much more affection and respect for things they can actually touch. Next Mohn put a toad on the sand in the circle of kids and the fun began. Calls of "Donít squish him!" rang out among the excited squeals of six-year olds as the toad jumped and some of the braver kids tried to get a closer view. Eventually Mohn put the toad back into the cooler so it could rest. Then it was on to the aquatic bugs.

Meanwhile a short distance up river the "Ducks" (age 8) and the "Otters" (age 9) were diving into the world of fish seining and pollywogging for mussels. Parents watched as their kids plunged fearlessly out into the sheltered bay where the Friends of Pool 9 station assistants were in the water, ready to help. Pat Short, Wisconsin DNR fishery biologist at Prairie du Chien, showed the kids how to throw a cast net which forms a purse when thrown. Nearby, Todd Roensch, fisheries technician, helped Sarah Yaeger and Brigid Berns pull a long seine net that has floats on the top edge and weights on the bottom to capture small fish and other organisms cruising the shallow shoreline. There was much giggling and laughing as the kids attempted to make the nets work as effortlessly as Short had shown them. About that time two boys in the pursuit of small fish with a hand net discovered a water snake hiding out in the branches of a fallen tree and the group dynamics changed again.

Short has worked on the Mississippi for seven years and has been involved with the river festival and the Mississippi River teacher workshops for most of that time. Although he always has an engaging way of explaining the fascinating world of Mississippi River fish at education festivals or teacher workshops, it canít come close to the sheer exuberance of both the kids and the biologists when Short called out to the group after his first demonstration, "Grab a net and let's get wet!"

After a while it was time to switch stations and move onto Mussel Beach, an area where Tim Yaeger, McGregor district manager for the Upper "Miss" Refuge, and Tony Brady from the USFWS Genoa Fish Hatchery, had carefully placed live mussels in the sand to be discovered by the participants. The only problem is that the students were really quick and very diligent at finding them. This was way better than any treasure hunt! Any spectator could quickly see why kids were put to work pollywogging for mussels during the heyday of the button industry in the early 1900s.

At last it was lunch timeóand the Friends' spread was greeted with expressions of "Wow, look at what's in this bag!" A sandwich and chips never tasted so good. The children and their parents sort of collapsed on the sand for a few brief moments, relaxed and then it was off on another boat trip up river to the next stop – exploring the bottomland forest with Kurt Brownell and Kristin Moe from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The kids and their parents set off on a brief hike after learning about important details like how to identify poison ivy and nettles as well as how to savor mulberries right off the tree.

About this time, some of the kids were drooping a bit, but a fast trip downriver to check out the catch of some retired commercial fishermen revived them, especially when they saw Jerry and Guy Boardman from Ferryville pull up the hoop nets with some huge catfish in them. Questions rang out across the water: "How big is the fish (30 lbs.), what is the biggest fish you ever caught (98 lbs.), what's your dog's name?" The Boardmans answered the questions and told the kids a little about commercial fishing and a lot about the river.

All in all it was a delightful day, and this first Adventure Day was deemed a resounding success for everyone involved. Some kids, like Alexis Bahr and Emy Dehli, collected physical treasures in the form of shells, while others collected memories like the four-year-old boy, who was still pumped with energy as he scampered by his mom's side on the way to the car. When asked "What was your favorite part?" he answered exuberantly, "Swimmin!" Undoubtedly he slept well that night.

For the Friends of Pool 9, "It was nice to know you might make a difference in some small way and spark the interest in a child," Verdon said. For the natural resource agency people involved, Adventure Day offered a special opportunity to invest in the future by helping the kids and their parents develop a sense of place about the Mississippi River.

Encouraging the kids and their parents to get out and explore, develop an appreciation for the river and form an emotional attachment to nature is all part of the experience. We hope that sharing family time in a natural setting forms lasting memories that linger far longer than video games or even team sports participation where parents are in the audience but not part of the game. Such outdoor days remind families that they donít have to travel 500 miles to exotic locations to make memories of family time together. It is all possible much closer to home. And we look forward to making it easier for families and children to experience that sense of adventure. There may be no better way than to just get wet, find critters in the mud, eat lunch on a sandbar and share the discoveries of the day with your parents.

We hope to continue Adventure Day as an annual event. This year, the program ran on July 20th. To track future programs and receive registration materials, go to Friends of Pool 9. There are many other opportunities on the Mississippi River and statewide to get connected with nature. Take DNR field trips, visit nature centers, sign up for weekend workshops, go camping, wet a line, float a boat, join hunts for wild foods, hit the trails, take a scouting trip, dust off the bikes or just hike the woods together to share an outdoor experience. For starters, check out the Department of Natural Resources. If you are near the big river, try the Upper Mississippi River Refuge.

Ruth Nissen is a biologist with DNR's Mississippi River Team based in La Crosse.