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Voyageur's Best Features of 2002

Happy kids enjoy the Big Sandy Water Institute's Buffet

Happy kids enjoy the Big Sandy Water Institute’s buffet
Kids enjoy many water activities
by Angie Johnson  | 2002

It’s true that Minnesota is the Land of 10,000 Lakes, but the Big Sandy Water Institute is anything but ordinary. But what is it? Essentially, it boils down to a three month calendar of outdoor water activities that differ in instruction, age group, location, and objective. All of the activies have one thing in common - they are focused on teaching the participants how to enjoy and preserve local waterways.

Jim Carlson, a volunteer and member of the board of directors, has been involved with the program since it was first suggested. The idea came up at the annual Big Sandy Lake Association meeting last summer. They wanted to teach children how to use the lake and non-motorized water craft properly. Three members of the board got together to figure out what to do. In Sept., when the program got too big for the Big Sandy Lake Association and the Big Sandy Lake Foundation to handle, they decided to bring the project to the school.

Enter Cheryl Meld, 21st Century Community Learning Center, and Lisa Kruse, McGregor School’s Community Education Director. Their roles were then divvied up, the three of them made up the Big Sandy Water Institute’s board of directors. Meld and Kruse assisted in creating program activities for participants, facilitated activities weekly, and assisted in working with various agencies and organizations. They also helped to promote the institute within the community. Jim, on the other hand, recruited and organized local volunteers and assisted with daily activities. “Jim has been key to our communication network with associated organizations, and has arranged for recognition of the Institute on a regional and statewide level,” said Meld.

A big piece of putting together the puzzle was finding a place to carry out all of their plans. Enter the Army Corps of Engineers. Carlson contacted Jeff Steere about using their facility at Libby Dam. “He said yes, and says yes to every question we’ve asked him,” noted Carlson. The Army Corps of Engineers has been extremely gracious in letting the Institute use their facility as “home base.” They lent the Institute use of their docks, beach, classrooms, pavilion and storage space.

The Corps also has two interns, Ross Ratcliff and Isaac Molls, who assisted the program on a daily basis. “The interns couldn’t be better off. They’re getting hands-on experience in shoreline instruction with this program,” said Kruse. The two of them taught the kids about proper life jacket usage, some general rules about boating, navigational rights and what to do in emergencies.

Jeff Steere was just glad that the kids were getting such a great opportunity. He has no regrets about lending the use of their facility. It was a good opportunity for the Corps as well. They’ve had the chance to advertise their facility and the lake to the young people, who are “soon-to-be recreators.” The Corps also had the chance to work with local organizations. “There’s no pressure on us; they have good organization and supervisors; we don’t even now they’re around,” concluded Steere.

Even after getting the location secured, there was still much to do. “A committee was pulled together which included members of the MN DNR, Army Corps of Engineers and several community members... and developed the menu of activities that included non-motorized water recreation, a water craft certification course, environmental education, and youth service and field trips,” said Meld about the events that followed.

With their “menu” complete and their objective clear, Carlson, Kruse and Meld kicked off the program with a picnic on June 10, 2002. Any child who was a resident of Aitkin Co. or a boxholder in the county was invited to participate in that event, along with any of the Institute’s other summer programs. All they had to do was sign up. Even children or grandchildren of people on the lake attended some of the sessions. Sometimes, kids staying at the Libby Dam campground would come and participate, whether or not they were residents of the county. The program seemed to have a certain appeal to kids right from the get-go.

A Recreational Grab-bag
The Big Sandy Water Institute is really one of a kind. Nobody knows of any program like this in the state. Kruse, being a Community Education Director, would have heard about it if there was. “UMD was impressed that the young ones here have the chance to utilize facilities that are practically in their own back yard,” said Lisa Kruse. Carlson agrees. “It’s the only one I know of in existence,” he said. “It teaches a wide variety in eight weeks.”
He couldn’t be more right. The Big Sandy Water Institute is all about giving kids access to the lakes so that they can have an enjoyable experience with it. “Where else would they get those experiences?” Jim asked. They wouldn’t.

So how do they do it? They offer a wide variety of courses involving safety, ecology, and of course, recreation - kayaking, canoeing, fishing, camping, and even white water rafting. They also made a trip to the Great Lakes Aquarium and Gooseberry Falls.

The program is diverse, to say the least. “The kids are loving it. They can’t wait,” Kruse said about the enthusiastic bunch of kids. “They’re always asking what’s going on tomorrow.”

From June 10 to Aug. 16, the Big Sandy Water Institute offered over 20 courses for youth ranging from 6 to 18 years of age. Halfway through the program, there were about 150-175 kids participating. By the time the program was finished, 250 kids had been served. Some of them were repeat attendants, but that’s still a great number for the first year. It just shows that the kids who went liked it enough to keep going back.

Education Across the Board
It seems that the Institute has been a new learning experience for everyone, three young adults in particular. In the spring, applications were filled out by high school and college students who wished to work at the Big Sandy Water Institute through Youth Works AmeriCorps. If hired, these volunteers would be the supervisors of the program.

The three students selected were Sarah Staum, Jenny Kulju and Jeana Anderson. Sarah is a 2001 graduate of McGregor High School, and will be a sophomore at the University of MN-Duluth in the fall. Jenny will be a senior at McGregor High School, and Jeana will be a junior at Cromwell High School.

“I’ve gotten to do a lot of things that I’ve never done before,” said Jenny. She wasn’t kidding. If you tried to sum up their job into a single sentence, Carlson could only narrow it down to this: “They assist in any way they are needed.” Yes, that means they got to play in the water while they were at work, and they didn’t even get in trouble for it! But it wasn’t all fun and games. They had to keep in mind that they were there as safety reinforcements. Jeana was the Red Cross Certified Lifeguard who was on duty at all times in case of an emergency.

In the meantime, the supervisors and registered participants learned some very interesting things. Here are some neat demonstrations that Scott Tichy, from the Army Corps of Engineers in North Dakota, taught the kids. They wore a special pair of goggles to make them feel drunk. They were told to play catch and walk a straight line, but the kids were surprised at how hard it was do. This was important because the number one cause of boating accidents are alcohol related.

The next demonstration was done to simulate a case of hypothermia. There was a cooler of ice water, precisely 32 degrees Fahrenheit, with 50 pennies on the bottom. The kids were told to stick their arm in for 30 seconds and get as many pennies as they could. They found out that it wasn’t as easy as it looked; some weren’t able to retrieve any pennies. Both demonstrations presented things that the kids should know before they go boating.
All in all, the supervisors walked away becoming experts (or close to it!) in a variety of areas, having worked with the program all summer. Fishing techniques, the importance of stewardship, safe canoe use, interaction with ecosystems, small boats, kayaks, swimming, snorkeling, or site seeing, ask them and you shall be amazed. Or perhaps dazed. Nonetheless, I think you will be surprised.

Wearing your Kayak
It was new to me, so I chuckled when the UMD instructors told the kids to “wear the kayak.” But they were serious. To them, sitting in a kayak was like putting on your pants. First they explained the different parts. The front is the bow, the back is the stern (it’s used for steering), the bottom is the hull, and the top is the deck.

The paddle, they said, has two main sides: the power face and the back face. You’re supposed to use the power face when making your strokes. This was the rounded, spoon-shaped side. The sides are connected by the shaft, where you should always keep your hands at a 90 degree angle. The shaft comes complete with drip rings, and by keeping your hands to the insides, you can keep them from getting wet.

After getting the basic instructions on kayaking, it was time to actually get in the water and try it. To board your kayak properly and safely, first face the bow toward the lake. Set the paddle across the stern, so as to steady yourself. Then, carefully sit down, using the paddle to keep yourself upright. Once inside the kayak, just push yourself out.

Out on the lake, the kids were directed to “raft up.” That’s just a fancy term that told them to steer their canoes into a line, all facing the same direction, and linking their arms like a naval blockade.

After a few short instructions on the sweep stroke, the instructors let the kids break up to practice. To make the sweep stroke, they were told to use a low shaft on one side, making a long arch all the way back to the stern without rotating their arms to the opposite side. They offered the kids these pointers: use your torso, not your arms to turn, and use forward strokes only.

By the time he taught them the pin wheel turn, where you alternate your arms on each side of the kayak, they were all getting the hang of it pretty quickly. “Look at them. They’re like ducks,” said Carlson, who was observing from shore. He was right. One by one, they glided across the lake in their brand new rubber-ducky-colored kayaks. They did look a lot like ducks, but I knew he was referring to their newfound kayaking skills, which they had picked up on in no time at all!

Trimming the canoe, among other things
It’s no surprise that the Institute wanted to find a canoeing instructor with experience in taking kids out on trips. Ron Smith, a longtime shop teacher at McGregor High School, was an easy choice.