On a brisk blue-skied day in October 2018, I tagged along on a St. Croix River field trip with a class of first-graders (including my daughter). The six- and seven-year-olds visited the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway headquarters in St. Croix Falls, became National Park Service Junior Rangers, and went on a bird scavenger hunt at nearby Lions Park.
The following spring, I went along again when they explored Interstate State Park in Taylors Falls, climbing over rocks, marveling at the potholes, watching the water rushing past. We hiked a mile up and down the bluffs, got wet feet in a trickling creek, saw trilliums and wild geranium. On what is now the Walter F. Mondale Trail, they stood at an overlook high on the bluffs and waved to the river boats passing far below.
Then, I blinked, and the world went a little sideways, and I opened my eyes and the children were two feet taller and we were back at the river. This week, the now fifth-graders took a boat ride on the Taylors Falls Princess and toured Interstate’s unique geologic creations. I signed up to chaperone again, and was again amazed by the connections between young minds and this wild and wonderful waterway.
This time, we were the ones on the river boats, surrounded by soaring basalt cliffs. Numerous volunteers, National Park Service rangers, and Wild Rivers Conservancy educators guided the kids through three interactive activities to teach them about the river’s history, geography, and wildlife. Staff from Wild Rivers Conservancy included Wendy Tremblay, Katrina Schlicker, and October Yates.
The field trips over the past five years have all been part of a National Park Service and Wild Rivers Conservancy program called “Rivers Are Alive.” Over the span of these students’ elementary school careers, Rivers Are Alive has evolved to offer activities to thousands of school children from around the region each year.
The school my children attend, River Grove Elementary in Marine on St. Croix, was an early adopter and frequent participant. In 2018, our guide was Jaime Souza of Wild Rivers Conservancy. A couple years later, Jaime became a first-grade teacher at River Grove, bringing her environmental education expertise to the classroom every day. This spring, River Grove received the “Every Kid in the Croix” award from Wild Rivers Conservancy (along with Luck, Wis. elementary school) in recognition of the efforts.
“There is not a single grade at River Grove that hasn’t been a part of a Rivers Are Alive field trip over the last year,” the award announcement said. “Their teachers have made it a point to make sure that their students understand the river ecosystem around them and their role in the community that surrounds the St. Croix River.”
On Tuesday this week, the kids scanned the banks with binoculars, looking for birds, and drew a map of the St. Croix River’s tributaries and watershed (learning what “tributary” and “watershed” were in the process). They performed a play about the life of an old-growth white pine cut by lumberjacks in northern Wisconsin in the nineteenth century and the many people it met along the way to the mills and eventually a new building somewhere on the American frontier.
They also had time to just look at the river with awe. The forests were fresh green, the water high but receding, the whole valley filled with life. Standing at the railings, staring at the water and banks slipping by, they were either silent or filled with questions.
After a morning afloat and lunch on the rocks, the kids joined Interstate Park naturalist extraordinaire Jenni Webster for a walk around the glacial potholes, deep caverns carved in hard rock by swirling water and small stones. She helped them see how a story that began a billion years ago with lava flowing out of cracks in the Earth’s crust was added to just 10,000 years ago by the effects of glacial meltwater. Despite being a little tired now, the children were still full of wonder and curiosity.
So much has happened since 2018. These kids and their teachers and parents went through a life-altering pandemic, with years of distance learning and social isolation. At the same time, they’ve gone through all the normal kid growth, developing ideas of themselves and how they fit in the world. Now, these fifth-graders are preparing to leave their beloved elementary school among woods and waters and start middle school next fall.
These five short years were truly brief compared to the eons of geologic time that still show their effects today. While these kids were growing and learning, the river kept flowing through the dalles, past the rocky bluffs, over the mussels and under the ducks. Herons hunted the shallow while osprey wheeled overhead before diving. As they studied and played sports, made friendships, explored the river and the valley on their own.
When they were ready, this sunny spring day, they came back to the river. It was there, as if waiting, hardly changed. It offers a redoubt for their rapidly changing lives. They know it will always be there, and that they can add their own lives to its long years.