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Asher Kingery (center), project specialist with the International Water Institute, talks about the River of Dreams project with seventh-graders from Schroeder Middle School on Wednesday on the Greenway in Lincoln Park. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Launch of miniature canoes highlights River of Dreams watershed education program

GRAND FORKS — They’re flying off the bridge and into the water one by one, more than 80 miniature canoes headed down the Red River, launched with great enthusiasm from the Lincoln Park walking bridge by the seventh-graders who decorated them at Schroeder Middle School in Grand Forks.

Where the cedar canoes end up, no one knows. Conceivably, their journey down the north-flowing river could take them all the way to Hudson Bay; others might not make it out of city limits.

The hope is that anyone who finds a canoe — each marked with a numbered ID — will report the discovery to the website listed on the sticker.

It’s all about learning where the water goes and how that affects everyone’s lives, says Bjorn Halvorson, a seventh-grade life science teacher at Schroeder who was part of this year’s canoe launch.

“Kids could be finding them in town 10 feet away in three years — you never know — and then some could be in Canada in a few years,” Halvorson said. “It’s just kind of a cool thing, something that gets us out of the classroom to do some real work on the river.”

Wednesday’s canoe launch, the second in as many days for Schroeder students, was part of “River of Dreams,” a watershed education program offered through the Fargo-based International Water Institute to get students in the Red River Basin thinking about their rivers.

The program is proving to be a hit among educators on both sides of the Red River. Since 2016, River of Dreams has grown from five schools in Minnesota to 32 schools this year — 16 each in North Dakota and Minnesota — said Andy Ulven, monitoring and education specialist for the institute. That’s more than 1,200 students launching more than 1,200 canoes into the Red River or one of its 26 tributaries, Ulven said.

“The real underpinning of the program is to drive home the fact that we’re all connected to the Red River, the Red River Basin and Lake Winnipeg, and eventually our water flows up to Hudson Bay,” Ulven said. “We’ve got to take care of our water resources and understand that your water is used by someone downstream after you, and it was used by someone before you upstream of you.

“We’re all kind of connected in this big puzzle and all of our tributary streams.”

Program inspiration

Ulven said River of Dreams is inspired by “Paddle-to-the-Sea,” a 1941 children’s novel by Holling Clancy Holling that follows the journey of a wooden canoe through the Great Lakes, down the St. Lawrence Seaway and out to the Atlantic Ocean.

Students in each participating school begin by reading the novel before decorating their canoes and writing essays about their hopes and dreams for the canoes they’ve painted. Using Google Earth, International Water Institute staff visit classrooms to show students where their river starts and map out its journey to Hudson Bay. The technology allows the kids to look at confluence points and even see differences in water quality and clarity from the satellite views, Ulven said.

“It’s just kind of driving home the connectivity of the planet’s water supplies through this exciting journey this canoe goes on, so it makes it more interesting and attainable to the students,” he said.

While River of Dreams was developed for students in grades four through six, Schroeder offers the program for seventh-graders, Halvorson said. Coupled with a similar launch Tuesday, Schroeder students in two groups released nearly 180 canoes into the Red River, making it the largest launch of any River of Dreams school.

The program, in its first year at Schroeder, incorporates a variety of subjects and learning opportunities, Halvorson said.

“I’m kind of hoping it’s going to float through the whole cross-curricular area that we have in our school,” he said. “There’s so much stuff we can do with data points and math, river flow and geography because of where the river’s going, where it’s going to end up and all sorts of different things.

“It’s exciting to see.”

On the move

Before Wednesday’s launch, Schroeder students each took turns talking about their canoes, which featured names such as “River Pickle,” “African Fighter” and “Rush.” A few of the more outgoing students also shared the stories they’d written about their canoes.

Someday, someone hundreds of miles downstream could find one of those canoes, look up the number on the website’s database and read its story, said Asher Kingery, project specialist for the International Water Institute who attended Wednesday’s launch.

The farthest downstream report to date came from Lockport, Man., north of Winnipeg, where a worker at the St. Andrews Lock and Dam last August found a canoe that had been launched in 2017 on the Buffalo River near Hawley, Minn.

The worker rescued the canoe from a logjam and sent it on its way toward Lake Winnipeg.

“We just had one found this spring that was launched in 2007. So 12 years later, it was found for the first time,” Kingery said. “If you can imagine sending a canoe downstream and knowing that people will find it downstream, possibly in another country, they’re able to look it up on the database, see the original design of the canoe and the dream that the students wrote for the canoe — it’s really fun for them.

“People are finding them almost every day this spring.”

River of Dreams’ expansion into North Dakota was made possible through funding from the Red River Joint Water Resource District and the state Water Commission, Ulven said. The Red River Watershed Management Board and the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment help fund the program in Minnesota schools.

Judging by the Schroeder students who launched their canoes this past week, the enthusiasm for River of Dreams flows strongly throughout the Red River Basin.

“I think wherever we do it, we have really positive results,” Kingery said. “Whenever we talk about it at conferences, everybody wants it so it is definitely a very popular program. It really is just that education about watersheds that can start a whole career or life of positively interacting with water.”

River of Dreams participants

Here’s a listing of North Dakota schools participating in the River of Dreams program, along with their local rivers and Watershed Resource Districts.

  • Cavalier: Tongue (Pembina) River, Pembina WRD.

  • Valley-Edinburg: Park River, Walsh WRD.

  • Minto: Forest River, Walsh WRD.

  • Schroeder Middle School: Red River, Grand Forks WRD.

  • Larimore: Turtle River, Grand Forks WRD.

  • Lakota: Devils Lake, Nelson WRD.

  • Finley-Sharon: Goose River, Steele WRD.

  • Hillsboro: Goose River, Traill WRD.

  • Northern Cass: Elm River, North Cass WRD.

  • Harwood: Sheyenne River, Rush River WRD.

  • CHARISM (Jefferson, Ed Clapp, Carl Ben Eielson and Lewis & Clark schools in Fargo): Red River, Southeast Cass WRD.

  • Central Cass: Maple River, Maple River WRD.

  • St. Catherine (Valley City): Sheyenne River, Barnes WRD.

  • Lisbon: Sheyenne River, Ransom WRD.

  • Sargent Central: Wild Rice River, Sargent WRD.

  • Hankinson: Wild Rice River, Richland WRD.

  • Lidgerwood: Wild Rice River, Richland WRD.

  • Fairmount: Bois de Sioux, Richland WRD.

  • Additional Canoes for Chahinkapa Zoo in Wahpeton, N.D.

River of Dreams Minnesota schools, their local rivers and watershed districts:

  • Red Lake County Central: Clearwater River, Red Lake Watershed District.

  • Campbell-Tintah: Rabbit (Bois de Sioux) River, Bois de Sioux WD.

  • Fertile-Beltrami: Sand Hill River, Sand Hill WD.

  • Fisher: Red Lake River, Red Lake WD.

  • Marshall County Central: Middle (Snake) River, Middle-Snake-Tamarac WD.

  • Hawley: Buffalo River, Buffalo-Red River WD.

  • Win-E-Mac: Clearwater River, Red Lake WD.

  • Norman County East: Wild Rice River, Wild Rice WD.

  • Herman-Norcross: Mustinka (Bois de Sioux), Bois de Sioux WD.

  • Warren-Alvarado-Oslo: Snake River, Middle-Snake-Tamarac WD.

  • Red Lake Falls: Clearwater/Red Lake rivers, Red Lake WD.

  • Clearbrook-Gonvick: Clearwater/Red Lake rivers, Red Lake WD.

  • Crookston: Red Lake River, Red Lake WD.

  • Grygla: Mud River (Thief/Red Lake), Red Lake WD.

  • East Grand Forks Sacred Heart: Red and Red Lake rivers, Red Lake WD.

  • St. Bernard’s Thief River Falls: Thief/Red Lake rivers, Red Lake WD.