This past fall Wilderness Inquiry celebrated a decade of Canoemobile connecting youth to nearby nature in the Bronx with a full week of celebration, including day programs, community paddles, and a press conference to highlight the Urban Waters Federal Partnership – the very partnership that brought Canoemobile to New York over a decade ago.
The week-long celebration kicked off with day programs for students on the Harlem River. The first group came from the Dr. Marjorie H Dunbar Elementary and the Highbridge Green School – a new, innovative community school that has been in the making for 10 years. The Highbridge neighborhood hasn’t had a middle school in decades, and students often had to leave the community, traveling an hour or more on public transportation to get to the nearest school.
Chauncy Young, a member of the Harlem River Working Group (HRWG), has collaborated with Wilderness Inquiry on events on the Harlem River for roughly a decade. The relationship was formed through the Urban Waters Federal Partnership – an initiative that aims to stimulate regional and local economies, create local jobs, improve quality of life, and protect public health by revitalizing urban waterways in under-served communities across the country.
“The Harlem River Working Group came together in 2009,” Young says. “I was involved from 2004 to 2009, working to reopen the High Bridge, which is the oldest standing bridge in New York City. One of our main focuses was to connect communities to the Harlem River by reinstating water recreation activities and re-envisioning the waterfront that communities have been cut off from for decades.” Wilderness Inquiry supports this effort through programs such as Canoemobile, which offers a way for students and residents alike to connect to their local waterways.
New York City is a waterfront city, but for a lot of residents, they never get out on the water. “It’s not only our students who may be afraid or have never been out on the water, but it’s also frequently our teachers, principals, or even our chancellors,” shared Young. “This year, we were able to get our chancellor for the New York City Department of Education, Meisha Ross Porter – the first black woman in New York City history to be chancellor – out on the water. Even our courageous and confident chancellor was afraid of the water and water activities, so I think collaborating with programs like Canoemobile is really challenging people’s expectations.”
While planning Canoemobile, there was apprehension regarding transportation due to the Department of Education’s concerns with COVID-19. Since reopening, many schools had not been on any field trips as a means to lower the transmission of the COVID-19 virus while using public transportation.
“Luckily, we have a good relationship with the Department of Education, so we were able to negotiate the importance of this Canoemobile program,” Young says. “This was the first outdoor trip that schools were allowed to do since the COVID-19 pandemic. This hurdle turned into something beautiful. We walked more than 50 students just a few blocks from their school to the river – they had no idea of the proximity and accessibility of the waterway.”
There is undoubtedly a need for programs like Canoemobile in the Highbridge community. Surrounding schools have shown interest in outdoor education and access to local waterways, creating a demand for Wilderness Inquiry’s and other network partners’ presence in the Bronx. A greenway along the river is being built after members of the HRWG have advocated for development along the river for several years. This beautiful path is one of the natural bridges between the iconic river and the hustle and bustle of the city.
“Roberto Clemente State Park, where Canoemobile was based out of, is a walkable distance – it’s a very popular park but not everyone from the community realizes that there’s actually a greenway path to get to that park,” he says. “So, it’s also about awareness for students and schools to realize that they don’t necessarily need a bus to go visit that particular site and that they can get there by just walking.”
Chauncy explains that this program improves the relationship students have with their city and its water bodies, noting that students are learning how behaviors, such as flushing toilets or using the sink, impact the waterfront as well as the history of New York City’s water system. “Students learn that how we relate to our environment can impact water quality,” he adds. “Exposing youth to their local waterways and educating them on our water history and future has been incredibly impactful.”
*Funding for Canoemobile in New York was provided in part by the USDA Forest Service – Urban Connections program as part of an initiative to connect youth to immersive experiences in the outdoors across Forest Service Region 9, which stretches from Minnesota to Maine.