It was 9 a.m. and I was on a school bus with a couple dozen first-graders (including my own daughter). I had not had my full coffee ration yet. It was loud and the children managed to be in constant motion despite a steady stream of reminders to sit on their seats.
It felt like we were driving 10 miles per hour.
The destination was worth the journey, and we were all excited, if not equally energetic. The students were headed to the National Park Service visitors center in St. Croix Falls — and beyond. They would spend the day experiencing and learning about the St. Croix River, the Wild & Scenic National Park in their backyards.
First, they needed to behave on the bus for half an hour. And I needed to drain my thermos.
The kids were from River Grove Elementary School in northern Washington County, Minnesota. They were taking part in the Rivers Are Alive program, offered by the St. Croix River Association (SCRA) and the Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway.
When our bus arrived at the St. Croix River Visitors Center, Jaime Souza from SCRA came on board, and used the driver’s microphone to direct us to the front door of the beautiful Park Service building on the banks of the river, right above the Xcel Energy dam. Jaime directs the River Connections program, and is a true professional when it comes to environmental education. Earlier this summer, I helped her with two Teachers on the River outings.
Rivers Are Alive has become a flagship program largely through her efforts. This fall, more than 1,000 kids have taken part in the program, most from communities on and near the river. They have come from Minong and Rush City, from New Richmond and Scandia, and elsewhere throughout the 7,700-square mile watershed.
The program is free for schools, with schools arranging transportation. Many activities can be brought into schools if transportation is not available. SCRA recently received a $25,000 grant from the from the National Park Service to help fund the program, but much of it is supported by donations to the nonprofit river group.
While wet weather had hampered some trips in September, our day was dry and clear and cool. The morning had dawned in the 20s, but a south wind and some sunshine warmed us into the low 50s. The children didn’t seem to consider the conditions — they wore boots and jackets, and ran through leaves shouting happily.
Sworn St. Croix stewards
It was my first time chaperoning such a field trip, though I had experience with the crew when they were kindergarteners the year before: a riotous reading of The Book With No Pictures for my daughter’s birthday, and a shift chaperoning the sledding hill at recess, trying to maintain my footing on a slick slope while the mob tried to push past my legs.
In September, Jaime and I had also netted insects living in the river and the Mill Stream in Marine on St. Croix and brought them to the class to study one afternoon. Once again it had been constant motion, and curiosity.
This field trip was the second half of the program. Jaime was joined by National Park Service Ranger Liz, complete with the olive drab uniform and wide-brimmed hat. Two other dads and one mom from the class came along, which proved very helpful for allowing small groups of children to experience activities together.
At the visitors center, we did a scavenger hunt among the exhibits about history and fish and dragonflies, learned about casting a fishing pole, stood quietly on a dock for a minute and used our five senses to observe, and finally, they were sworn in as Junior Rangers of the National Park Service.
The kids were thrilled with the oath and the badges, and ready to perform their duties of protecting the St. Croix.
My daughter had just been sworn in a month ago at the Once Upon a River show, so she was quite thrilled to be at the vanguard of this service. While I don’t think all the kids heard everything that various adults tried to tell them throughout the day, she made sure every single one of her classmates knew she had been behind the badge for weeks already.
That was all before lunch.
About noon, we boarded the bus again and rode it just a few minutes upstream to Lions Park, where the kids gobbled their food in a picnic shelter, drawn by the nearby playground and its uncharted territory.
Then Jaime and Ranger Liz rejoined us, and we hunted for leaves, searched for birds, and took a nature hike along the Ice Age National Scenic Trail.
The walk was the last part of the adventure for my group of kids, and they walked happily through the woods, sat on a bridge and listened to a flowing creek, and investigated a rotted log on the forest floor.
Then we turned back for the bus, and strolled at the pace of six-year-olds who are tired but don’t want to stop exploring.
The bus ride home was somewhat quieter than the morning, but the kids were clearly energized by all the excitement, working a little like my precious coffee. Their minds and bodies were as busy as they are meant to be, open to the world, soaking up information from numerous sources, inhabiting ideas. The St. Croix River was clearly now part of their consciousness.
On the other hand, I was exhausted. The constant motion and questions and personal bubble invasions left me crammed in a bus seat, staring straight ahead, unable to think or speak. I took the time to feel grateful for teachers.
I collapsed into bed later that night, but could think of no better reason to be so tired than connecting kids and this river.