Voyageur Canoe Paddling with Grade Schoolers

In 1673, Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet
became the first Europeans to set eyes on Iowa. Part Christian mission, part fur trading expedition,
these two Frenchmen led a small band of explorers down the Mississippi River from Wisconsin
paddling massive canoes now commonly referred to as voyagers. While time saw these canoes replaced with
large boats and eventually barges, they will forever hold an important place in Iowa’s
history. And today, thanks to Clinton County Conservation,
students and historians alike can paddle in the same place, and craft, as Iowa’s original
adventurers. These canoes that we’re about to travel in
would have been filled to the brim with muskrat and beaver. (music) This was a business endeavor. They were trading with the Native Americans
for the pelts. These are 29-foot long boats. There are a few different kinds that the voyagers
used. Some of them were really large, about 35 feet
long. Jessica Wagner: So kind of today our theme
is water. We invited the sixth graders out to try out
these voyager canoes. These are kind of newer canoes that Clinton
County Conservation purchased and so we brought the sixth graders out to kind of be our guinea
pigs and test them on the waters, get them paddling, learn a skill, to enjoy the outdoors,
also some water safety. These kids live here by the river. Try to keep your hands stacked on top of each
other when you start. Wager: Making sure that they know how to be
safe, wearing that life jacket. The water can be powerful and we just want
to make sure that they’re safe and they’re aware of how to be safe on the water. (music) Much like riding a bike, as soon as you learn
how to paddle a canoe or boat, that skill will never leave you. For many of these sixth graders, this field
trip just cracked open the door to a lifelong passion. And yet, there is so much more beyond this
paddling excursion. Beyond providing a fun adventure on South
Sabula Lake, these voyager canoes are an important piece of Iowa history. Chuck Jacobson: Well, the name Voyager comes
from the Frenchmen that did most of the work when moving these boats across the wilderness. Most of them were indentured servants, they
got across the Atlantic by signing into contract and sort of worked off their passage by carrying
the trade goods and then bringing furs back from the wilderness. As early as the 1530’s, voyager canoes were
used to explore rivers all over North America. But by the mid-1670’s, pioneers were exploring
up and down the Mississippi River as well as its tributaries. Jacobson: They came right down through here. They were in canoes, they had a small party
of Frenchmen with them and some native guides and that happened in 1673. Clinton County’s boats are an excellent representation
of what you might see traveling up the Mississippi River years ago, including the field trip
paddlers. While the canoes can hold up to 14 adults,
space was paramount on these expeditions and crew needed to fit specific requirements. Jacobson: If I were to want to become a voyager
I would not be accepted. I’m too tall. They wanted people close to five feet tall. The reason being that those voyagers were
taking up room, valuable room in the boat, which would otherwise be used for trade merchandise
or the furs coming back. So they wanted small framed men. But the men had to be very strong, they had
to be able to pack a 90 pound pack across portages, which were sometimes miles long. Some of the sixth graders might be the right
size, but certainly not strong enough. During their time on the water, Chuck and
Jessica steer the crew up to the edge of the Mississippi current, giving them a taste of
what real voyager treks were like. Jacobson: You’re not going to turn on a dime
in these. Anybody that has paddled a canoe in current
knows you have to plan ahead. With these boats that is even more important. But you’re paddling on one side of the boat
constantly, probably for an hour. Now, the voyagers would take a break about
every hour or so. If they were in current they’d probably just
let the boat keep drifting because they were making at least some ground that way. It’s a very different situation. Needless to say, today’s field trip is nowhere
near as strenuous as anything the voyagers encountered. And while the children are learning about
voyager history, Chuck doesn’t see that as the main takeaway from the children’s time
on the water. Jacobson: Well, we hope they pick up a bit
of that history. But when it comes right down to the basics,
they’re forced to work as a team. If they’re not paddling in unison the paddles
will be clacking together. It just doesn’t work. Nice job guys. Wagner: Teamwork is definitely important in
a canoe when you’ve got a paddling buddy, but it’s definitely important when you’ve
got 10 to 14 kids trying to paddle at the same time in sync, propel that boat forward
or backward and so teamwork is pretty important with these things. Jacobson: And what we’ve discovered, and I
think very interesting, is that when we put young students, paddling students in these
boats to start with, once they’ve had that experience they step out of this big boat
and they get into more individual boats, say a two-man canoe, and now they have this experience
behind them. They’ve already seen it work, they’ve been
involved in making it work, it has just been so much easier to deal with students in other
canoes and in kayaks. To the teachers and conservation officers,
today is a day of learning, but don’t tell that to the kids. To them, this field trip is primarily about
fun. Get set! Go! (music) (music) (music) (music) Wagner: Not only are we getting them out on
the water in the voyager canoes but we’re also doing some macroinvertebrate studies
and learning about what is the water quality here in their community. The water affects us all. Is it appropriate for us to be swimming in
it, boating in it and utilizing it? But also is it quality enough for the fish
that we’re fishing from here and other organisms that live here in the river? Of course when the canoes are packed up and
the school buses take off, Jessica hopes today’s adventures are only the start of an enduring
admiration for nature and the water. Wagner: I love that I’m able to get the kids
outside. At the end of the day I was like wow, 40 kids,
we just went and spent a beautiful fall day outdoors, paddling out on the lake, and hopefully
just instilling them kind of a love for the outdoors as I have myself.

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