River paddle ends 6-month expedition for high school students

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(Host) A group of high school students is nearing the end of a semester-long outdoor adventure. This past winter the students skied the length of Vermont. They’ve just finished the return-leg of the trip: paddling in a hand-made canoe down the Connecticut River.

VPR’s Susan Keese caught up with them near Windsor.

(Sounds of students paddling canoes.)

(Keese) It’s a short, smooth paddle across the Connecticut to the place where the seven students and their instructors have spent the night. Morning mist still clings to the green gold river.

Chris Knapp is an instructor working with Kroka Expeditions. That’s the southern Vermont outdoor adventure school sponsoring the students’ six-month odyssey. The school is named for a dog its founder once had. Knapp spots a horizontal shape slinking through an opening on the bank.

(Knapp) “Wow there’s a mink. Okay guys, we can drift in. How do you like this? Parallel parking!”

(Keese) The Kasha, their boat, is a sturdy, square-sterned canoe, 20 feet long. It’s big enough for all seven kids and their handmade ash pack baskets.

It was April, and the snow was getting thin, when they skied into the Vermont Leadership Center about 15 miles from the Canadian border. They set up camp there and built the Kasha. A boatmaker from Maine showed them how to steam-bend the ribs over an upturned canoe mold.

(Stefan Hofer-Fay) “The ribs are made out of cedar and the rails are made out of spruce and the thwarts are made out of oak.”

(Keese) Fifteen-year old Stefan Hofer-Fay is from a Waldorf School in Pennsylvania. He and the others seem leaner and quieter than when they started out last February.

A short hike up the bank is the travelers’ overnight campsite. Over a small wood-fired cook stove, Mathias Donner, a trail guide from Ecuador, is stirring something green.

(Donner) “Japanese knotweed that we picked on the trail!”

(Keese) To most Vermonters, Japanese knotweed is a nuisance plant. But 18-year old Saul Blocher of Dummerston says it tastes like rhubarb if you pick the shoots early. All spring he and the others have feasted on wild edibles.

(Blocher) “These are ground nuts. Those are the greatest – those things are awesome. It’s like this long chain of tubers. You dig them up and you cook them up and they’re kind of like potatoes.”

(Keese) Everyone sings together in a circle before breakfast.

(Singing) “Be like a bird who, halting in its flight, yet sings, sings, knowing she hath wings…”

(Keese) The students say living this way deepens their connection to the world around them. Fifteen-year-old Emily Turner of Bristol didn’t feel that in her public high school. It was all about the pressure to succeed, she says.

(Turner) “I mean, this big thing that hangs over your head. You’re supposed to do sports and music and be good at academics and there’s such a disconnection from everything around you.”

(Keese) The kids have kept up dutifully with their school work. But Monkton student Jane Larsen says this semester hasn’t really been about academics.

(Larson) “It’s a different kind of learning. I think that a lot of it is just – you take it in and it just becomes a part of you. You don’t need to write it down and memorize it.”

(Keese) Some worry that the hardest part could be when their time together is over in mid-June.

The students brought their trip full circle last weekend. They arrived at the Kroka camp in Newfane after poling their canoe upstream over the rain-swollen West River.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

For more information on the Kroka, visit the group’s Web site at www.kroka.org.

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