Waitsfield, Vt. This summer an innovative program has been gaining attention in the small towns and cities of northern New York and New England. One hundred fifty youth, ranging in age from 10–14, are getting out on the rivers of the region as part of a program that is tailored specifically to providing rural youth experiences in nature.
"Northern Forest Explorers" is a program of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, based in Vermont but with a focus on the 740-mile long Northern Forest Canoe Trail which stretches from Old Forge, New York to Fort Kent, Maine. The organization has twelve trips on the rivers of the Trail this summer for youth from rural northern New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. The five-day long trips teach basic outdoor skills, provide instruction in basic science, and expose children to opportunities for leadership development.
"Many people assume that because rural youth live amongst the great forests and rivers of the region that they have experiences in these settings, but these young people are often just as likely not have real outdoor opportunities as children growing up in our big cities," says Roger Poor, Youth Program Director. "This program serves this population and provides an outdoor experience that we believe will help make these children lifelong learners, leaders and advocates for being outside," he continued.
Popularized as nature deficit disorder, the lack of youth exercise and experiences in nature is the premise of the bestselling book Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv, and is a central part of the Obama Administration's America's Great Outdoors initiative, which seeks to increase public participation and access to exercise and the natural world. The Northern Forest Explorers program works with local outfitters and guides to design trips for rural youth that teaches paddling and other outdoor skills and connects kids to the rivers and forests that make up their backyards.
Lori Sampietro of Montgomery Adventures in Montgomery Center, Vermont sees this program filling a great need, "This program is critical because it recognizes that for many of these kids their connection to the outdoors is through the car window. Northern Forest Explorers gives these kids a chance to learn firsthand what it means to be on the water and in the woods, and in doing so is helping to instill pride, confidence and a land ethic in these young people which helps make our communities stronger."
The Northern Forest Explorers program is supported with a two-year grant from the Department of Justice and is in its first year. The program is expected to grow 25% next year. With a waiting list for participating this summer, the program has a bright future meeting the needs of rural youth in the region.