River School: the art and science of rivers with 4e and Manitoulin Streams

Sarah King Gold teaches watercolour technique as part of the River School.

Where science and nature combines education and fun

by Sharon Jackson

KAGAWONG—4elements Living Arts and Manitoulin Streams came together once again this summer to take on another successful partnership project: River School—the art and science of rivers. Both children and adults took part in classes focusing on plant and animal life in the Kagawong River.

The kids’ day programs were well attended with 12-14 kids in each class. This included a very popular workshop held during Kagawong’s annual Summer Fest where children drew snails and worms and snakes and frogs.

Twelve paddlers (including this writer) filled four canoes and spent an afternoon on the Kagawong River in mid-July as they attended River School’s watershed through photo documentation. Participants learned about mapping, photography and watersheds from Susan Meert of Manitoulin Streams and 4elements facilitator Heather Thoma while Katie put them through their paces with paddling skills.

Students of the July 14 4elements Living Arts and Manitoulin Streams River School in Kagawong.
Students of the July 14 4elements Living Arts and Manitoulin Streams River School in Kagawong.

Five guides and seven students underwent dry land training prior to stepping into the canoes. The pupils learned paddle strokes: forward, C stroke (wide sweeping motion) and the J turn. Each of them was given a whistle to attach to their PFD (personal floatation device). Three different signals were demonstrated: 1, I want your attention; 2, come to me or ‘raft up;’ and 3, I need help now. Luckily only one signal was heard during the afternoon: come to me.

“What does water mean to you?” asked Ms. Thoma prior to taking to the river. Responses included: I play in it, swim, cleanse and heal, play, study, no life without it, gives life. Ms. Thoma gave each canoe a clipboard and paper to draw the water at the beginning and end of their time on the river. “As you paddle, look around at what you’re seeing and sketch or take a picture.”

Each canoe held three people, two to paddle and one in the centre to take photos and draw trees, lily pads, wildlife and other life in, on and around the river.

The cool temperatures overcast skies did not dampen the spirits of the paddlers as they made their way down the river.

One of the students, Shelba, who is First Nations, shared the Ojibwe names for several of the creatures seen along the way.

Some of the creatures included a beaver (ahmik), duck (ziishiib), and two turtles (mizheekay). The wind got up several times along the way which caused the lily pads to flip up, showing their pinkish hued underside which was a pleasant surprise. Beaver dams, cattails, tree stumps and huge oak trees made good subjects for sketching and photos.

One of the River School participants asked Ms. Thoma “what is the definition of a watershed?”

“It is where the water moves and collects into the same place,” she replied. “It is in essence ‘a collector;’ naturally formed by mountains and rivers—moving together to one cluster.”

After a short stop at a tent and trailer park site, paddlers were back in the water for what was a quick return to the launch across from Bridal Veil Falls.

“There is life in it” and “it brings balance to everything in existence,” were two of the responses to Ms. Thoma’s question ‘what is the river?’ which summed up their experience perfectly.

River School wrapped up its summer session this past weekend with guest artist Brenda King Gold of Sudbury and retired Manitoulin Secondary School history teacher Bill Caesar. The purpose of the class was to “deepen your knowledge of the river along with your watercolour and creative writing skills as we examine the micro world of river invertebrates, riparian habitats, plants and fossils.”

Mr. Caesar shared his knowledge and love of fossils with the class along with Ms. Thoma and Ms. Meert who acted as guides for the day, 4elements Living Arts program director Patricia Mader, Ms. Gold and three students (including this writer).

Ms. Thoma asked each student what question they have about the river, some of the answers were: what type of stones are in the river besides limestone, what will it look like in 100 years, how old is the river, with all the rain we had recently, how high will the water level be today, and Mr. Caesar asked, ‘how many treasures are in the river that I want?’

The first stop along the river had students sitting on rocks, dipping brushes in the river and simply using the brush and texture of watercolour paper to move the colours across the page. What Ms. Gold enjoys about watercolour painting is to be surprised and to “let go of control; let it happen.”

“I want you to experience the brush,” she said. “What marks does it make on your skin and how it feels different from another brush.” Acrylic is more coarse as is pushes the paint around. She invited them to slow down and “look at the material you’re working with.”

Different painting techniques were explored as students learned layering and textures of paint and paper.

Invertebrates on a rock found in the Kagawong River were part of the discussion at the camp.
Invertebrates on a rock found in the Kagawong River were part of the discussion at the camp.

When asked to describe water and colour in one word, the responses were alive, life, movement, place, refreshing and play. For colour the responses were vibrant, change, surprise and space.

After spending some time painting and working with colour, brushes and technique, one of the students asked Ms. Gold how do you know when it’s finished. Her reply was, “it’s a feeling. If you ask the question, it’s probably done. Take a break from it and then come back.”

The last stop of the afternoon was at the mouth of the river where students had an opportunity to draw using permanent markers and water to make a smudge effect.

Nets and rubber tubs were used to dip into the river to hold rocks carrying mircoscopic invertebrates. Several crayfish, water penny beetle larva and flat head mayflies were found.

The next project hosted by 4elements Living Arts takes place September 29-October 2: Elemental Festival. For more details on programs, workshops or how you can volunteer your time, visit www.4elementslivingarts.org or call Program Director Patricia Mader at 705-282-0444.