A mythical creature is bringing magic to children in lakes and rivers around Minnesota and Wisconsin this summer — with a message about protecting the St. Croix River and other cherished water bodies.
Claire Van Valkenburg grew up in Hudson, Wisconsin and currently attends the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As her alter-ego Mermaid Echo, she attends birthday parties and other events wearing a 30-pound silicon “monofin” and mermaid accessories.
The attention-grabbing outfit delights children and makes her a great messenger for stewardship. “Just like how mermaids lure men into rocks, they can also lure the public into paying attention to what is happening to our planet,” she says. “People don’t really see sturgeon as beautiful, they don’t really see sharks as graceful, but if you put a mermaid in that environment, coexisting with the water creatures, then that is such a powerful message. A beautiful creature like the mermaid can bridge the gap between fish and human, and can publicly demonstrate that connection.”
Claire was kind enough to answer a few questions for St. Croix 360 about mermaids and the river.
Why is the St. Croix River important to you?
The St. Croix River means everything to me, I grew up playing in it, fishing it, boating on it, and accidentally swallowing it. I think the river is so much a part of myself as my heartbeat is. To me it represents my childhood and my family.
When I came home from college one weekend just after the ice had gone out I immediately drove to the river, and as soon as I saw it I actually started crying because I had missed it so much. I stuck my toes in the water and they went numb from the cold but it was so worth it! I live on a body of water at school, but there is nothing like your body of water.
What are some favorite river memories?
Almost all of the memories I have of the St. Croix River are on our family’s little 24-foot Sea Ray Weekender. We bought it when I was in second grade and there were a few summers when we spent almost every day on the boat, from whenever we woke up to whenever there was barely enough light to find the boat launch.
I always sat on the rim of the boat and leaned out enough to feel the spray on my hand, and I always got scolded by one of my parents. My parents would start every boating trip by asking my sister and I where we wanted to go that day, the three of them usually wanted a beach, but I always asked to anchor in a deep spot so I could dive off the boat and see how deep I could go without getting scared by the dark red water and the possibility of fish I couldn’t see.
What’s it like working as a camp counselor on the St. Croix?
This summer will be my third year and my position actually requires me to be on the beach all day every day, I don’t think there is a better job out there!
Some of the kids have never seen a river before because they live in the heart of the Twin Cities. There was one instance when it took me a half hour of coaxing a young girl just to stick her feet in the water, she was worried about seaweed and fish. But once she felt the water on her toes she found this courage and ran, splashing into the water! It was a really powerful learning experience for both of us.
How has the river affected your life?
The river has affected my life ever since I can remember, it has instilled in me an immense love for water. I think if I hadn’t grown up on a river I wouldn’t be as dedicated to water and conservation efforts as I am.
There are the little things, like only using desktop backgrounds that are pictures of water in some form, to the bigger things like deciding to go to UW-Madison ultimately because it was an isthmus surrounded by Lake Mendota, to the even bigger things, like starting a business that will help educate and inspire the next generation to protect the river, and ultimately all bodies of water.
I even chose my high school sport of diving partially because of my love for water that came from growing up on the river.
What kind of conservation information does Mermaid Echo share with children?
Educating children about conservation really depends on their age and the situation. If I am doing a birthday party, obviously the whole focus won’t be on conservation, it will be on making sure that child has the most magical birthday of their life.
But I try to insert little messages and tokens that they can take with them. For example, a client can choose to for guests to receive treasures from Mermaid Echo’s treasure chest, one of these treasures is a real shell from small ocean creatures like hermit crabs.
Children learn really well when they get to interact with what they’re learning about, so by handing them a shell and saying “These are the homes that some of my friends lived before they moved into bigger homes,” is a message that means what they are holding is real, it affects real creatures’ lives.
At the end of parties, the kids also say a pledge with Mermaid Echo to help protect water systems and the animals that live in them. I won’t disclose the whole pledge but the first line is “I promise, from my head to my tail; to protect water creatures, each and every scale.”
What are Mermaid Echo’s future plans?
Birthday parties will ultimately be just what gets my name out there and gets Mermaid Echo off the ground. My absolute dream, that is proving to be more difficult that I thought, is to perform in tanks and aquariums. This is the opportune situation to educate not only children but also the general public about what is happening to our water systems.
Swimming in aquariums gives the public an entertaining, novel, and eclectic idea that sharks aren’t dangerous, that sturgeon are vital aspects to our river way ecosystems, and that humans should be making a conscious effort to interact with water creatures and their environments. If mermaids can, then anyone can. I think the mermaid is the lost connection that we need to light the fire of activism to protect our ecosystem. Guilt-tripping the public over dying Polar Bears isn’t working, we need something that is incredibly visual, sharable, accessible, and beautiful. The mermaid is all of that and more, it is really the perfect marketing tool.
I could have gone to school to study marine biology or hydrology, but I’ve always been really bad at science. So the logical thing to do was to become a mermaid.