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Students get their first taste of canoe camping through the Texas River School

Pam LeBlanc, Fit City

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Their canoes grounded on a nearby sandbar, 34 happily shrieking fifth-graders from Sanchez Elementary School are bobbing belly up and feet first down the Colorado River.

One by one, they emerge from the green water, life jackets dripping, and climb back into their boats for the last half mile to camp, where they'll pitch tents, eat dinner and sing around a campfire.

It's part of a program created by the Texas River School, designed to introduce children to the joys of camping and canoeing.

Joe Kendall started the Chautauqua Foundation in 1991 to protect Texas' rivers and streams and share his passion for paddling with the next generation. The Austin-based nonprofit foundation spawned the Texas River School, an outdoor education program for students.

So far more than 4,200 students have participated in day paddling trips through the school. Now the school is starting a series of overnight expeditions to a 25-acre piece of property it owns just east of Austin.

"Kids do better on testing — they're healthier and happier if they spend unstructured time in nature," Kendall says.

The river school's camp is situated off of FM 969 in a subdivision initially developed in the 1970s but later abandoned because it was located in the river's flood plain. The area became an illegal dump site until the Chautauqua Foundation installed a gate and enlisted Travis County officials to help clean it up.

Texas Parks and Wildlife and the Lower Colorado River Authority have provided grant money to develop the property and equip the river school with gear. The river school provides the camping program to the Sanchez students for free.

Instructors with the Texas River School visited Sanchez four times before the trip, preparing students for the overnight experience. Most of the students participated in a day trip last year, too, paddling down Lady Bird Lake while learning why it's important to protect natural resources.

"They remembered the strokes and have gotten more confident," says Sanchez fifth-grade teacher Sally Duncan, who is accompanying the students and five staffers from the river school on the trip.

The inaugural campers, giddy with the thrill of their overnight adventure, launched from beneath the Montopolis Bridge. Four hours in, not a single canoe had tipped over.

Even so, Emily Castenada, 11, lost a shoe somewhere along the way. "The water took it away, and I never saw it again," she says.

Safely at camp, the students drag their boats out of the water and gather their gear. In an hour, a dozen green tents have sprouted in a circle beneath the protective branches of a grove of trees.

"It's so much work!" someone hollers. A bevy of busy campers marches past toting sleeping bags, pillows and flashlights.

Mirian Cardenas, 11, says the best part so far was the splash fight in the river. The worst part? "I don't like bugs," she says.

Right on cue, her tentmate, Guadalupe Rios, 11, hops and squeals. "There's a big spider on my feet!"

While the kids regain their composure, river school instructors inspect tents, making sure each one is properly set up before sending its residents off to wash their own dishes before dinner.

"It's hard work, but it pays off," says Brian Ortiz, 11, a rookie camper.

Then the students gather for a tour by instructor Terry Hedrick, who shows them the camp kitchen, garden, water collection system and special environmentally friendly latrine.

This trip marked the first time Marco Duran, 10, had ever slept in a tent, and he already wants to do it again. "The best part is spending time with my friends and camping out," he says.

And he almost backed out. "I wanted to change my mind about coming, but my teacher persuaded me to come," Marco says.

He's glad she did.

After dining on chicken fajitas, beans and rice, the campers gather around a fire to listen to toast marshmallows, make s'mores and listen to Bill Oliver sing and play his guitar.

Then it's off to bed.

In the morning, they paddle again, get some tips on nature photography, swim and try their luck at fishing. Then it's back to school, armed with a new appreciation of what it takes to be outdoorsmen and women.

Contact Pam LeBlanc at 445-3994

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