Sean and Col- ton's Excellent Adventure is still making waves: Tonight, the conquering canoe paddlers will be honored at an ice cream reception where they will present a slide show about their 49-day, 2,200-mile canoe trip to Hudson Bay.

And probably wonder what all the fuss is about.

The great thing about being 18 is that you don't over-think much. Instead, you go with the flow -- or paddle against it -- as you like. That's what Colton Witte and Sean Bloomfield did: The Chaska High seniors graduated early and embarked on April 28, following in the legendary wake of Eric Sevareid's "Canoeing With the Cree" and reaching Hudson Bay on June 15.

Others have done it before. But none, to my knowledge, have done it faster, and few since Sevareid and his paddling partner Walter Port have captured the public's imagination more effectively. Almost unwittingly, the teens tapped into a deep strain of Minnesota lore -- in which they had been steeped by their families -- that connected with our love of woods and waters.

It seems sometimes that the natural environment is more a thing of memory than a living, and threatened, reality. But then two kids come along and canoe half a continent in joyful exuberance, living on moldy pizza and granola bars, sleeping in their canoe, hellbent for Hudson Bay.

I think we needed that.

Tonight, Colton and Sean will be honored by the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, which will present them with the center's traditional award -- engraved canoe paddles -- at a 7 p.m. reception at the REI outdoors store in Bloomington (located at Interstate 494 and Lyndale Avenue). It's a chance for members of the public to meet the canoe kids, see a slide-show presentation on their journey, and hear what their next plans are. It might be the most attention 18-year-olds get this side of an NBA draft or a police blotter. But these guys can handle it.

I think they also deserve it.

A few days before Sean and Colton started paddling, I wrote that Sevareid's 1935 book had helped inspire Minnesota's passion for nature, and for preserving it. That column, prompted by the U.S. Postal Service's release of a stamp honoring Sevareid, led to my hearing about two youngsters from Chaska who were just about to set out on the same voyage.

From that happy coincidence came five more columns about their journey and the opportunity to follow an epic trip in real time. The result was that Colton and Sean's story touched readers, and touched on issues of importance.

It might also have touched fecal coliform, bacteria from animal wastes and inadequate septic systems.

"I was worried that they might fall into the Minnesota and need to have shots," says Kris Sigford, director of water quality programs at the influential and nonprofit Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA), which has fought for clean water, wetland preservation and environmental protection since 1974.

(Apparently the center does its job so well that its name turned up Tuesday on a Department of Justice list of "liberal organizations" that, if it was on your résumé, would have you gotten you rejected from internships at Justice. Good on you, MCEA!)

"We think of ourselves as 'the Land of Sky-Blue Waters,' but it's not all like that, and we have to be vigilant," says Sigford. "We have destroyed the heck out of our wetlands, and we have turned some of our most emblematic and important rivers into agricultural sacrifice zones."

The lawyers and scientists of the MCEA -- some of whom have been involved in environmental causes for four decades or more -- eagerly followed the story of Sean and Colton. Because the boys were paddling into an environmental battlefield: Up the Minnesota River, still polluted despite a 10-year clean-up effort, and down the Red, whose phosphorus-rich waters are causing the eutrophication of Lake Winnipeg, the world's 11th-biggest lake.

But the enthusiasm of environmental advocates for the paddling prowess of the lads from Chaska was not merely scientific. A lot of it was just pure old Minnesota admiration for a canoe well paddled and a river well run.

"We have a lot of gray eminences around here," says the MCEA's legal director, Janette Brimmer. "We are doomed if young people don't connect to the outdoors and stay inside, playing computer games. That's why we are celebrating two young people who made a trip that is so historically, culturally and environmentally fabulous.

"All of our geeky nerdiness was vibrating," Brimmer adds and, yes, she was laughing. "You hear so much about young people being disconnected from the environment. Our question has been, 'Who's going to carry on this work?'Well, with kids like Sean and Colton out there, we don't have to worry.

"We really dig them."

Nick Coleman • 612-673-4400