Sunday, January 3, 2010

Canoeing on Bayou St. John

 New Orleans Times-Picayune
By Mary Rickard, Contributing writer

Claire Triplett stood on the bank of Bayou St. John and gave a short orientation on canoeing techniques to 15 Girl Scout Brownies from Troop 1368.

"I'll show you the two strokes and they're super-simple," Triplett told the girls. Then she demonstrated how they could safely get in and out of the boats. "Keep your weight in the middle," she cautioned.

Wearing Brownie vests underneath their orange life preservers and carrying pink Barbie lunch boxes along with paddles, the girls waited anxiously to board. The third- and fourth-graders from Lake Forest Charter Elementary School in eastern New Orleans were taking part in the New Orleans Recreation Department's new Wilderness Program.

The new outdoor activities for children include a water awareness program to teach swimming, water safety and lifeguard skills in the summer months; and hiking, backpacking, camping, outdoor survival skills and education about local plants and animals during the winter months. Children also learn about ways to protect the environment, including basics of reducing waste and recycling.

Triplett, the program's director, grew up canoeing, camping and hiking in her home state of Indiana. She taught canoeing with the Louisiana Outdoors Outreach Program five years ago, before starting the New Orleans program in April.

The recent canoe trip was the first one where parents came along. Kayla August was accompanied by her sister, Trinity, and mother, Clairessa Smith. The only other watercraft Smith had been on before was a cruise ship. "This is the first time we are going to experience this here," Smith said. "The Girl Scout teacher, she really takes them on adventures."

Two weeks before the canoe trip, Sabrina Taylor, a gifted resources teacher and Girl Scout leader at Lake Forest, took the troop to Audubon Zoo for overnight camping. She plans for the girls to go horseback riding in January. "It's great to introduce them to the outdoors at an early age," Taylor said.

On Bayou St. John, three lifeguard-trained Wilderness Program staff members paired experienced paddlers with novices, helping everyone into the canoes, which launched from Moss Street near Orleans Avenue. Triplett gave boaters final instructions: "When you go under the bridges, don't lean to the side."

  Nine new red canoes were added this year to the two green boats used by the city's Outdoor Program, which was discontinued several years ago. The colorful fleet set out from the shoreline, several traveling in circles for a time or bumping into each other, before finally settling on a northerly course.

Raymond Watson and his daughter, Annise, 9, sped ahead of the pack. Annise was experienced, her father explained, having already gone white-water rafting on the Little Pigeon River in the Smoky Mountains.

The group's voyage took them past antebellum mansions, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the bronze equestrian statue of General P.G.T. Beauregard, a floating purple foam sculpture of an alligator, St. Louis Cemetery No. 3, and under three low bridges to the LSU School of Dentistry for a picnic lunch.

Parents appeared to have had at least as much fun as the children. "This is one for the bucket list, so I am crossing it off," said Rosalind Woodfox, a mother of four and parent liaison at Lake Forest Charter School. "This is really priceless."

Though several other events were taking place the same day, none of the participants showed any regret for missing them.

"The Mirliton Festival can't touch this experience," said Jean Wooten, a Lake Forest social studies teacher.

For more information about the Wilderness Program, e-mail or call 504.382.3386.

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