One camper in a life jacket took a break from paddling and trailed her hand in the Mississippi, dipping into the Twin Cities’ most prominent natural feature for the first time in her 10 years.

In the same canoe, Lucina Kayee, 19, paddled with the confidence of a seasoned outdoorswoman. Hooked from her first trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness at age 14, Kayee is now a summer Wilderness Inquiry National Park Service fellow. This fall, she will work at Wilderness Inquiry while taking classes at Hamline University.

The two boatmates represent the ends of the spectrum — first-timer to career — of Wilderness Inquiry’s Urban Wilderness Canoe Adventures program.

The Minneapolis-based nonprofit has been finding ways to get everyone outdoors, especially those least likely to do so, since 1978. Expanding on that mission, it established Urban Wilderness Canoe Adventures (UWCA) in 2008, aimed at getting urban children from the seven-county metro area out onto the Mississippi River and other easily accessible public parks. But more than a one-time exposure, UWCA seeks to introduce them to progressively longer and farther-flung adventures, leading to lifelong stewardship, and even a career in the outdoor industry.

It worked for Shalesa Johnson. Then a freshman at St. Paul’s Central High School, she’d never been in a canoe before her college prep group at Central offered a half-day trip on the Mississippi. The trip was organized and outfitted by UWCA.

“It was fun, laughing and having this experience for the first time, together,” Johnson said. “But also, it was such a different perspective to be right on the river and see where the beaver had chewed the tree, for example. Before, I had just driven over the river on a bridge.”

Always up for an adventure, she signed on for three UWCA camping trips during her junior year, each a little longer, until the year-end finale — a week in Glacier National Park.

“It was really challenging, hiking every single day, first two miles, then four, then eight!” Johnson said. “Eight miles blew my mind but, surprisingly, I did it! The first two days were just fun, exploring, and then something clicked, and I found myself wanting to go more into history and the ecosystem. That was the first time I thought this might be something more than just a fun trip — if it changed the way I thought [about the outdoors] by getting out here, that could happen to someone else.”

Johnson signed up for Advanced Placement environmental science at Central High School, started volunteering at Wilderness Inquiry, and this summer, wrangled a paid Wilderness Inquiry National Park Service fellowship. She’ll return from her second Glacier National Park trek just in time to start at University of Minnesota Duluth, where she’ll study environmental and outdoor education.

“I want other kids to look at me and think, ‘I’m just like her; I can do it too,’ ” she said.

UWCA has the canoes and the wilderness expertise, but to get as many children as possible into canoes (it has served 75,000 kids and families since 2008), it partners with a range of organizations, from the National Park Service to the YMCA, and of course, schools. One of UWCA’s most effective collaborations with schools is to provide the curriculum framework, teacher professional development, and gear and guides for faculty or students who want to start an outdoor club.

In 2013, two teachers at Edison High School in Minneapolis partnered with UWCA to establish an outdoor club. Students from demographics that haven’t, in the past, done much skiing, camping, hiking and climbing signed up a la carte for those activities.

“The National Park Service found visitors are whiter and older than the general population,” said Edison Outdoor Club faculty adviser John Strand. “That’s not sustainable. National parks need a constituency, and kids need to know those public places belong to them; it’s their legacy.”

With UWCA’s planning, equipment, and experienced counselors, Strand and 10 Edison High School students recently finished off a year of local adventures and service projects with a weeklong trip to Yellowstone National Park.

Erika Sacta, one of the Edison students, said the shorter local activities had inspired her and built her confidence enough to take on this big adventure. It was a road trip, certainly, but she saw her ability to take on challenges as a useful skill.

Back at Hidden Falls Regional Park on the banks of the Mississippi, one of the founders of Wilderness Inquiry, Greg Lais, watched the 48 canoe beginners high-five their paddles and practice dry-land stroking. He told the story about a study they had done to determine what kids most enjoyed about UWCA trips, what kept them coming back. Lais laughed, remembering the study director nervously prefacing his report with, “Our findings are not what you’re expecting …”

“It wasn’t being out in nature or paddling or hiking, and he thought we wouldn’t want to hear that,” said Lais. “It was the people. It was connections with the counselors.”

Lucina Kayee, who for years has been a youth advocate for kids in foster care, plans to use her background to connect with a specific slice of urban youth. “Wilderness Inquiry recruited me to help recruit kids who — I won’t say are ‘at risk’; I prefer ‘have untapped potential.’ I want them to experience the outdoors like I did, but we also talk about education and employment. It’s a nice little circle around — they see they can have fun, learn and have an opportunity for employment.”

 

Sarah Barker is a freelance writer. She lives in St. Paul.