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I still remember my first kayak outing on the Buffalo River.

I launched from Red Jacket Riverfront Park with my colleague Wendy. We were timing out a paddle we would lead later that week which would showcase a few of the Buffalo River Habitat Restoration Projects. It was June and we lucked out with a beautiful sunny day. We unloaded our kayaks, geared up with our PFD and marine radios (safety first!), and launched. We paddled across the river to the southern bank and I noticed a few beaver slides and chewed sticks. I pointed them out to Wendy and we chatted about how seeing sign of their activity was a good indicator for the river. We were about to paddle on up river, happy to see just the beaver slides, when a furry brown mass popped out of water several feet away. It swam toward the shore giving us time to verify what it was, then disappeared.

This wildlife encounter is why my first paddle along this urban river was so memorable. Lucky for me, I get to lead our Young Environmental Leaders Program students on kayak tours of the Buffalo River, and for many it is their first-time on this special waterway. For some, it is their first time in a paddle craft.

When leading first-time paddlers, it is important to help put them at ease and make them as comfortable as possible. Waterkeeper starts every kayak tour with a safety briefing and paddle tutorial to provide the group with some basic skills. When we lead our high school Young Environmental Leaders we do an extended on-land session. We show them how to sit in the boat, how to avoid tipping it, how to hold the paddle correctly and demonstrate a few strokes. We check to ensure their PFD is on correctly before we depart. We also have the option of having a student ride in a tandem with an experienced adult. Taking time to get prepared on land allows for an enjoyable on-water experience for all!

From time to time, students are lucky enough to experience an exciting wildlife encounter on their paddle, just as I did during my first paddle. One year we grouped the students up to talk about the river’s history of industrial pollution. We didn’t get far into our talking points before we heard a high pitched shriek and saw several students pointing at the surface of the water nearby. A water snake decided to join our lesson that day and showed off to the students! I was proud that the students stayed relatively calm and no one made a run for it. We watched the snake continue on its way. I’m sure this is a wildlife encounter a few will never forget.