Learning: Bray Wilkins, first mate aboard the Spirit of the James, prepares to tie up as the James River Association’s “floating classroom” maneuvers toward the dock in Eclipse on Friday. The 340-mile expedition taught students about conservation through first-hand experience.
Learning: Bray Wilkins, first mate aboard the Spirit of the James, prepares to tie up as the James River Association’s “floating classroom” maneuvers toward the dock in Eclipse on Friday. The 340-mile expedition taught students about conservation through first-hand experience.

Archived Story

Lessons on the water

Published 9:07pm Saturday, August 2, 2014

A “floating classroom” arrived in North Suffolk on Friday to teach a group of high school students from various schools in the James River watershed about the local environment and history.

Karla Smith of Suffolk River Heritage met the Spirit of the James at the Johnson and Sons Seafood dock, before taking the youngsters up the road to the Ruritan Hall for their lesson.

The James River Association’s 40-foot pontoon boat had set off that morning from Chickahominy Riverfront Park, on the final day of an eight-day expedition on the Lower James.

“Honestly, this trip looked like a very interesting challenge, both physically and mentally,” said J.W. Brown, a rising junior at Mathews High School, explaining his decision to apply for the expedition.

It was an open-enrollment opportunity, said Kyle Burnette, the association’s lead educator. Interested students applied by answering questions and submitting an essay and a teacher recommendation.

The program’s three legs — with 10 different students experiencing each — were the Upper, Middle and Lower James, spanning a total of 340 miles.

Almost the entire trip was via canoes; Friday was the only day the third and final group did not have to paddle.

“The paddling was very vigorous,” Brown said. “It’s a really great opportunity to bond with some of the groups — they are really great.”

He said he’s visited Suffolk before, but hadn’t had the opportunity to learn much about the area.

Smith said she would tell the students about the local history and give them each a waterways map.

Throughout three expeditions, the educational focus has been the ecology of the James River and its natural history, “as well as some of the environmental impacts that we have had on the James,” Burnette said.

“We are also talking about where we are going in terms of river health,” he added. “Every day, it’s very much place-based information. We are learning about where we are on the river each day.”

Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School rising junior Elle Rosenbaum — another student on the third leg — said she enjoyed a visit to the Surry nuclear power plant, owned and operated, incidentally, by floating classroom sponsor Dominion Resources.

“I’m loving it,” Rosenbaum said. “It was difficult on the second day, but at the end you feel great, because I just did, like 20 miles in one day.”

Admiration for her Boy Scout brothers led her to join the experience, she said. “I wanted to see if I could come out here and camp for eight days and contribute to the cause.”

What cause is that?

“Keeping the river clean, and making sure the animals can live here,” she said.

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