Three rookie paddlers climb into a canoe, squealing at every wobble, clinging to the dock like it's their only hope of survival.

Finally, their resolve bolstered, they push off from the Austin Rowing Center. They paddle tentatively. They curve in a gentle arc. Soon, although it's not their plan, they are back where they started.

"Hard on the right, ladies!" Spider DeVictoria, an instructor for the Texas River School, hollers as they drift helplessly back to home base. "Switch sides! Paddle more!"

He pushes them off again, and this time they manage to navigate their way across Lady Bird Lake, joining a cluster of other canoes powered by fifth- and sixth-graders from Sanchez Elementary School.

The students, ages 10 and 11, are participating in the Discover the Source program hosted by the river school, a nonprofit organization that introduces kids to the river, teaches them why it's important to take care of the natural resource and provides them with some exercise and a healthy meal.

"It is much easier to do this when you are in a canoe," instructor Terry Hedrick tells a group of students who are perched on the dock, their life jackets buckled, practicing dipping their paddles in the water before they get on the water.

As a couple of canoes swerve toward each other, narrowly avoiding a collision just off the dock, Hedrick has some more advice: "There is no reason for anybody to ram another canoe!"

Joe Kendall started the Texas River School in 1992, aiming to share his passion for paddling and the river with the next generation. Since then, more than 4,000 elementary school children have gone through this introductory paddling program, which begins with an hour-long lesson in paddling safety skills on dry land. After today's trip, a representative will visit the students in their classroom to discuss the experience.

"We hope to instill a connection with nature, because they're not getting it," says Kendall, now the group's executive director. "There's a nature deficit."

A girl in a pink shirt and pants climbs apprehensively into a canoe, looking as nervous as if she were going on safari in Africa. "I've never actually paddled," she says.

Soon, 11 canoes are gliding down the river. The group, which includes five adults to supervise, paddles to the mouth of Barton Creek. After a few minutes' break for a splash fight, the boats weave their way to a spot below Barton Springs Pool, where they pull off and the students unload ice chests.

A healthy lunch is part of the deal. Everyone gets a sandwich, fruit, a choice of two veggies and chips.

"You have to eat a balanced meal," Kendall says. "Part of the goal is addressing the obesity issue. We want to show (participants) you can spend a full day in nature without eating a cookie, chips and a Coke."

Bill Oliver, a local singer/songwriter, serenades the group with music about canoeing, exploring and Barton Springs. Then the group hikes to Barton Springs Pool, where they learn how an aquifer works at the Splash! exhibit. Afterward, they get a chance to swim in the pool before heading back to their canoes for the trip home.

"We're at a crossroads as a community, a city and a country," says Jim Stewart, a member of the River School's board of directors. An experienced scuba diver, he helps fit the students in fins and masks so they can try snorkeling. "There are so many more attractive things for them to do that aren't outdoors."

The program is free to participants. It costs the river school about $60 for each child it puts on the river. Funding comes from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which has provided $30,000 to $50,000 in grant money every two years.

Board members also raise money by selling fajitas at Eeyore's Birthday Party, set this year for April 24 in Pease Park, and through monthly moonlight bat floats held during warm months. The next float is set for Friday. It costs $15 to rent a canoe for the event.

The Texas Rowing Center, a major sponsor, provides a place to store the school's 20 canoes and a start and finish point for each educational trip. Each participant also gets a coupon for a free canoe rental.

The River School also owns property down river, where it is starting a canoe camping club and Dutch oven cooking classes.

"I like water, so I like coming out here," says Christian Estep, 11, taking a break after lunch. "But it's hard keeping the canoe straight."

He also learned why it's important to keep the river clean. "It's kind of like if we weren't taking care of our own home," he says. "My Dad always says if you visit some place you should leave it better than you found it."

Today was 11-year-old Harley Baker's first time in a canoe, and she was a little apprehensive at first. "I was scared we might tip over and get the food soggy," she says. "Every time we turned it would go the wrong way."

The food survived, and so did Harley.

Now she wants to canoe again.

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Texas River School

For more information about the Texas River School, go to www.texasriverschool.org or call 447-0238.