On a sandy beach in North Mississippi Regional Park, a dozen city kids had some fun along with fishing lessons last week.

Outings like this are part of a National Park Service effort to hook them on the Mississippi River.

Using a $7,800 National Park Foundation grant, the Park Service pays for school buses to take St. Paul fifth-graders to the river. It also partners with the YMCA and Wilderness Inquiry to teach young people fishing, canoeing, camping and other outdoor skills to keep them coming back to the river.

“We have a progression of ­programs to get kids to know and eventually canoe on the Mississippi River,” said Paul Labovitz, superintendent of the 72-mile-long Mississippi National River and Recreation Area that runs from Dayton to Hastings. “We familiarize kids with the park, teach them how to use bike trails or transit to get to the river and have some fun,” Labovitz said.

Ranger Mary Blitzer, wearing shorts, water sandals, a brown ranger shirt and a badge, led the kids and supervisors on a narrow dirt path through big cottonwoods and underbrush to the beach near 49th Avenue and Lyndale Avenue N. She had already caught a baby turtle, which the kids held or observed in a water bucket. Soon she was telling Mariah Coleman, 16, how to string a fishing line through the eyelets on her rod and how to choose a hook and bait.

“How are you feeling?” Blitzer asked, holding up a hook. “You want a big fish?”

“I want a big fish,” replied Mariah, of Bloomington, who goes to the Southdale Y. She stuck corn kernels on her hook and cast the line into the river.

Olga Oliver, 14, of Minneapolis, landed the first catch: a 5-pound, tail-flapping carp. Blitzer gave Olga a high-five and helped unhook the big fish.

“I have to grab their interest,” Blitzer said. “I can’t force anything. … We want to give them all the skills, equipment and desire they need to keep spending time outdoors.”

Help for at-risk kids

Many of the kids on the beach were part of the Y’s youth intervention program aimed at providing positive social and outdoor experiences to young people from Hennepin, Anoka and Ramsey counties who have been homeless, are on juvenile probation or have had problems in schools or foster homes.

Nearly 200 kids have participated in the Park Service-Y partnership since it began three years ago, said Lisa Pung, a Y intervention program manager. The first two years offered only canoe trips. But this summer’s activities also include weekly fishing trips and an overnight campout this week at Fort Snelling State Park. So far this year about 90 young people have participated, she said.

The Y won a $5,000 grant from the Minneapolis Foundation that helps pay for bus passes to get youths to the river and for fishing poles and tackle, given to kids who attend at least two fishing sessions, Pung said. Grants also cover canoes, tents, other equipment and Inquiry guides.

Because many of the kids worry about tippy canoes, Wilderness Inquiry provides 24-foot Voyageur canoes that can hold 10 paddlers, Pung said.

Igniting passion

“The canoe trip is often the first outdoor experience for these young people,” Pung said. “They don’t realize we have the Mississippi River in our back yard. They may cross over it but they never get to get on the water and experience nature. It really opens up a passion for wilderness in young people. … We find the more we connect youth to positive experiences through partnerships like this, and give them opportunities to be challenged and build connections to the community, the more successful they are in life.”

Denton White of Minneapolis did some fishing and then helped dice up vegetables for omelets for a shore lunch, while bacon and hash browns sizzled nearby on a portable stove. White, 24, said he went canoeing for the first time this summer in a big Voyageur.

“I was kind of nervous,” said White, who had never been on a river or lake or boat before. “I love it. It’s a rush.” He said he is learning to swim and wants to get really good at canoeing so he can shoot rapids some day.

“You don’t need a TV or an Xbox 360 PlayStation to have a good time,” White said. “Being outdoors is a good time.”