Iowa River Call – Teaching Kids to Love Their River

Kali Feiereisel, an Iowa Rivercall volunteer from the University of Iowa, helps fourth graders identify aquatic animals found at the edge of the Iowa River. Photo: Julia Wasson

How do you teach a child to love a river?

It’s not hard to figure out that you can’t love something you don’t know. Surprisingly, to an awful lot of Iowa kids, a river is just something they cross over in a car. I say, “surprisingly,” because Iowa has the image of a pastoral state, where children skip stones into the water from the riverbank, go fishing with their friends, and swim in the creeks that feed the rivers. But the reality is much different for the majority of city kids, like those who live in the Iowa City Community School District.

"Look! I've got a tadpole!" Photo: Julia Wasson

For the past two days, fourth graders from Hills Elementary (Monday) and third- and fourth-graders from Twain Elementary (Tuesday) participated in a field trip experience designed to help them fall in love with the Iowa River.

You might wonder why falling in love with a river is important. The answer is simple: As Jacques-Yves Cousteau once said, “People protect what they love.”

Iowa’s rivers have serious problems that need to be remedied, but they’re also places of great beauty and economic value. Our rivers serve as a place for recreation: fishing (though be careful which fish you eat and how many), boating, canoeing, and kayaking. We camp along their banks. We photograph their scenery. We enjoy watching the animals that live in and near the water.

There’s much to love about a river. And there’s no better time to begin than as a child.

So, a small group of committed volunteers, concerned with protecting the health of the Iowa River,  got together to form Iowa RiverCall, a group dedicated to teaching fourth graders about the river nearest their home. Over the past year, we planned a field trip designed to bring youngsters to the Iowa River for a day of education and fun.

Jake Benedict demonstrates how to identify acquatic animals while students and their teacher look on. Photo: Julia Wasson

The idea for the event originated with the vision of Chris Vinsonhaler, who had volunteered at North Carolina’s 20-year-old Haw River Learning Celebration in its infancy.

Modeled largely after the Haw River festival, Iowa River Call included experiences unique to our area in a county park called River Junction Access and nearby Walker Park. 

Each day featured three activity centers near the river, followed by three centers in what remains of the community of River Junction, also called Stump Town.

Under the direction of Mary Skopec, head of the Department of Natural Resources’ Water Monitoring program, the children tested water quality, including pH (good), the presence of oxygen (good),  and clarity (poor).

With the help of volunteers Jake Benedict and Kali Feiereisel, from the University of Iowa, the kids observed river animals, including tadpoles, toads, and insects.

Naturalist Brad Friedhof shows students a river otter's pelt. Photo: Julia Wasson

Led by professors Barbara Eckstein and Jim Throgmorton, they walked along the river to observe native plants, fossils, tracks, and the action of the water as it swirls and tears at the banks.

And, at a station run by Johnson County Naturalist, Brad Friedhof, and volunteers Erin Gerard and Lois Albrecht, students got to hold the pelts of a variety of mammals found — or once found — in Iowa. They also touched a snake, watched an endangered box turtle pull into its shell, and learned about other reptiles in Iowa.

In Stump Town, students were treated to a visit to the old general store, where they learned more about the history of the peoples who lived in this area. Gene and Connie Zdrazil, who live in the restored building and operate a business there, told students about a settler named Annie, who was both the former proprietor of the store and the town gravedigger.

This youngster is excited to see his headstone rubbing reveal a veteran of World War I. Photo: Julia Wasson

The kids walked through the cemetery at Stump Town and made rubbings of some of the gravestones of the old settlers. Perhaps the most dramatic lesson there was the young age at which so many of the residents died — and that some of them died of illnesses that are little more than a minor nuisance today.

The kids also released some pent-up energy by playing a non-competitive game called Bats and Bugs.

Following a picnic lunch, professional storyteller and singer Chris Vinsonhaler led the group in lively songs and activities, while Joe Hennager and Gene Zdrazil kept time on the drums.

Other volunteers, including Hills principal, Perry Ross, provided skits and storytelling. Local Stump Town resident Jerry Morgan, dressed in authentic costume, spoke to the crowd as Henry Walker, the man for whom the county park at Stump Town was named.

Teachers, parent volunteers, and principals Perry Ross and Mary Bontrager were essential to the success of the event, providing cheerful guidance and connecting the day’s lessons with knowledge the children had already gained at school. Joanne Morgan, Lynette Seigley, and Chinese graduate student, Min, supported the Iowa River Call team and teachers by moving with students from station to station.

Adult volunteers perform a skit for the students. Photo: Julia Wasson

Financial support from the Iowa Institute for Hydrological Research and Environmental Advocates of Johnson County made the event free to the participating schools. 

At the end of the day, a giant puppet, Sepanamo, made an appearance to say farewell to the students. Designed by volunteers from the University of Iowa art department, the puppet represented the spirit of Stump Town, which the native Americans had long ago named Sepanamo.

As the children left the site, they waved goodbye to Sepanamo and the many volunteers who had made the experience possible for them. For our part, we were exhausted but gratified.

We each had experienced “magical moments,” as Jim Throgmorton had dubbed the times when kids’ eyes lit up with wonder. For me, one moment of magic came at the end of the first day, in the voice of a little girl, who whispered, “I love the river!” What more could I ask for?

Sepanamo, a giant puppet, arrives at the closing ceremony. Photo: Julia Wasson

If you live along the Iowa River watershed, please consider volunteering next year as we expand the number of sites to include other communities in the watershed. It’s an experience you won’t soon forget, and one that will make a difference in the future of our rivers by teaching children to love them today.

Or, if you live in another part of the world, why not start a river celebration in your own watershed? We’ll share our resources to help you get started.

Contact Iowa River Call project leader, Chris Vinsonhaler, or send me an email (Julia Wasson), to request more information.

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

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4 Responses to “Iowa River Call – Teaching Kids to Love Their River”

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