The Paddling Life: Let My Children Raft!

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The Paddling Life
Let My Children Raft!

The Humiston Building’s conference room in Meredith, New Hampshire’s Inter-Lake School District has two rows of chairs facing a horseshoe-shaped table. During normal school board meetings, the rows sit relatively empty. Not during a Tuesday last December, when parents and students filled the seats and flowed out into the hallway. At stake: An Outing Club-sponsored rafting trip slated for the Dead River.

Certain board members, it seems, objected to it. “The kids shouldn’t be let out of school early for this event,” bellyached one, about the paltry period and a half students would miss from school. Those left behind will be stuck with a substitute, leading to “…to some compromise of progress,” whimpered another.

One by one the lynch mob stood up and voiced their support for the trip. One such speaker was high school junior Riley Lacasse, 16, who participated in the excursion the previous two years. Her speech was as short and sweet as she is, but her rationale behind it is as straightforward as a raft in a rapid: “You get to learn about people,” she says, “which you need in life just as much as Math and English. You also learn about camping, which is as important as technology, and it creates cooperation, which you need to get down the river. And at that time of year, I think you learn more than you would in school anyway.”

To me, the debate is as dead as the river’s name. I won’t even offer the Cheese Whiz from my dry box to go with the board members’ whines. Kids can learn as much from a paddling trip as they can from any classroom.

Call my wife and I hippy home-schoolers if you will, but with apologies to my daughter’s second-grade teacher, Mrs. Stoddard, there’s no better instructor than the Great Outdoors. Consider last spring when we pulled Brooke, 7, and Casey, 3, from school for a raft trip down Utah’s San Juan River. We were 13 adults and nine kids, ages 2-7, out for five days of tuition Southwest-style in an un-segregated mix of rafts, canoes and sit-on-tops.

The classroom was a classic sandstone canyon, and unlike a typical first day at school the kids’ curiosity picked up right at the put-in. “How did those walls get like that?” inquired Brooke as we shoved off from Mexican Hat.

Harking back to Geology 101, I related how the river carved them and time had turned millions of years of sediment into sandstone. Then came a lesson from Mother Nature as an April flurry forced us to pull over and set up a tarp. Thunder crashed, leading to a tutorial in electricity, and then waterfalls cascaded over the canyon rim, leading to a discussion on desert varnish.

“See those black streaks?” I asked. “How do you think they got there?”

Hands shot up faster than any time back at Strawberry Park primary school.

Camp provided even more practical tutorials, the first from fire ants to our daughter, Casey.
“Don’t play with those,” I advised, a second before the bite and lesson came.

Next came a seminar on retribution as I grabbed His Redness and took it to a funnel-shaped depression in the sand. Time for the ant lion lesson. Wham! A claw snatched the offering while the kids around like spectators at a Roman coliseum.

Such sessions continued every day. The kids practiced architecture by building sand castles; learned about radiation by refusing sunscreen; and tried their hands at art by painting mud onto rocks with homemade sage brushes. They learned first-hand about quicksand, cactus and scorpions; and picked up a lesson in social studies from Anasazi ruins. A sunning snake even led to a discussion of warm- and cold-blooded animals. The lessons were endless, from a fireside history talk about John Wesley Powell (and marshmallow math example for s’mores) to an ecological lecture about tamarisk and the Glen Canyon dam. After cannon-balling into a pool up Slickhorn Gulch, Brooke even noticed a few tadpoles swimming near shore and said, “Look, dad, they’re in a school.”

Though she might not have known it, she was too. So what if her reading and righting only applied to water and boats? As Riley champions, the lessons learned are real and lifelong, and more practical than any absorbed in a classroom. Besides, as the New Hampshire junior puts in high school vernacular, “It’s awesome, a wicked good time.” When’s the last time you heard that about more conventional schooling?

–Note: At a follow-up meeting, the school board voted 4-2 to let the kids go (but only after an itinerary change meaning missing just one period of class), and the trip went off without a hitch in June.