About the Canoemobile Program


In an effort to encourage other communities to engage youth in the outdoors, we borrowed a concept from the past—the mobile library or “Bookmobile.” Our version is called the “Canoemobile,” and it is designed to safely engage youth in urban rivers and environments that are close to where they live.

Building on the highly successful Pyramid of Engagement model, Wilderness Inquiry and its many partners initiated the Canoemobile to replicate the Urban Wilderness Canoe Adventures model nationwide. The UWCA is a step-wise approach that engages thousands of urban youth with the environment, facilitates skill-building to grow future stewards and managers of our public lands, and addresses one of the most pressing issues of our time—the academic achievement gap.

In 2010, Wilderness Inquiry and the National Park Service brought the UWCA concept to Washington, DC, with support from the NPS (RTCA), the US Forest Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Anacostia Watershed Society, Washington Parks and People, National Park Trust, and several others.  Serving 1,000 DC area school kids on the Anacostia River, this effort helped bring together 20 DC area organizations focused on youth and/or the Anacostia River. The Canoemobile intends to build on this success by introducing youth to urban waterways in multiple cities and building local coalitions dedicated to providing outdoor opportunities to disadvantaged youth.

Canoemobile in the shadows of the USS New Jersey on the Delaware River

Paddling by the USS New Jersey on the Delaware River.

Replicating a Successful Model

The Canoemobile has successfully conducted programs on urban waters in 20 cities serving over 7,000 youth. Some of those cities include:

  • Chicago
  • Milwaukee
  • Michigan City
  • Louisville
  • Cincinnati
  • Philadelphia
  • New York
  • Washington, DC
Paddling the Ohio River

Paddling the Ohio River in Cincinnati.

Building the Movement

The Canoemobile serves as a catalyst for federal, state, and local governments, school districts, and non-profit service providers to come together and provide high-quality environmental education at scale and where it is least expected. After successful completion of Canoemobile programming, partners continue collaborating to enhance the system of youth engagement on their public lands and urban waters. The coalition of organizations that come together to conduct each event are different, but in every case it involves city, state, and federal agencies, local and national non-profits and businesses, and schools. This collaborative model, with each organization doing what it does best, is a major factor in the Canoemobile’s success.

This approach is best described in the Stanford Social Innovation Review article on Collective Impact.

Addressing Important National Concerns

Paddling the Harlem River in NYC

Getting ready to paddle the Harlem River

We need to reverse the trend of today’s youth being disconnected from the natural world. Not only do we stand to lose a large public constituency that supports the preservation of public lands, but reversing this trend has great potential to increase community engagement, develop personal skills, and help address other significant issues of our day such as childhood obesity, diabetes, and the achievement gap in public schools as featured in Time Magazine: “The Case Against Summer Vacation,” Time Magazine, July 22, 2010.

The Pyramid of Engagement

The purpose of each local coalition is to establish a system for engaging youth in a series of opportunities designed to promote involvement in environment and outdoor related activities and careers. The Canoemobile starts by opening the outdoors to youth in their own communities, but we will also engage partners to provide overnight and multi-day outdoor experiences. In some communities, these opportunities already exist. They are, however, rarely coordinated or accessible to low-income urban youth on a scale that will make a substantial impact. Finally, an important part of the model is the establishment of an Outdoor Jobs Council with members in each community, made up of leaders in public and private organizations that provide employment and education in environment and outdoor related jobs. To create lasting impact, we recognize that urban youth must become more than outdoor recreationists and community advocates, they must also become the leadership and workforce of federal, state, local and private organizations that manage or provide access to public lands.

Harlem River, Bronx

Paddling the Harlem River in the Bronx


The Canoemobile increases public awareness and knowledge about environmental issues by providing quality, introductory, and academically-connected water-based experiential opportunities to underserved urban youth and introducing them to multiple partnering agencies and organizations—both local and national—who work and engage in their communities. Canoemobile participants are the next generation of advocates for public lands and environmental and community stewards.

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