September 2016
Youth Matters

4-H RiverKids

A Fun, New Way for Youth to Learn Aquatic Ecology and Stewardship

  4-H’ers beat the heat on the Elk River at the Limestone County 4-H RiverKids kick-off event.

Alabama boasts some of the most beautiful and scenic aquatic habitats in the world. Alabama Cooperative Extension System and the Alabama Scenic River Trail Association are hard at work getting young people to notice. From the towering bluffs in North Alabama to the sandy creek bottoms in East Alabama, through 4-H RiverKids hundreds of young people have learned to paddle a kayak while enjoying the great outdoors this summer. This new venture officially kicked off in May and has been developing at the grassroots level in participating counties.

4-H RiverKids is a seasonal, hands-on, natural-resource program dedicated to teaching paddling, aquatic ecology and stewardship to youth ages 9-18. While the program is a new ACES venture, the original RiverKids project was rooted in efforts by the Alabama Scenic River Trail, National Park Service, Legacy Partners in Environmental Education, Alabama RC&D Council Association and the Calhoun County Commission to teach children how to kayak.

Bear Creek’s cascades make for good picnicking along the way.  

Building on past successes and gaining much momentum from outdoor recreation enthusiasts, we’ve attracted a lot of attention in these short few months. And for a good reason: 4-H RiverKids has created a positive environment for youth and adults to grow into mentors and become more engaged citizens. Our RiverKids instructors are trained and certified to work with young people over the water. They have undergone rigorous background screening and they are passionate about giving back to the communities surrounding them.

RiverKids classes vary from county to county, and might be set up as a one-day event or a series of meetings. The local waterways, topography, history and culture truly influence the programming. Being able to impart an understanding of aquatic ecosystem functioning and cultivating knowledge of the role waterways played in the colonization of our state is central to the mission. This has opened doors for involvement from volunteers, community partners and guest lecturers from Tennessee Valley Authority, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Alabama Power Co. and city municipalities.

It’s been a neat way to combine education and outreach with outdoor recreation and get so many players involved. Counties will outline their learning objectives during the event-planning process and tailor each session accordingly. A group might spend one day in the classroom and the next day exploring the Elk River, for example.

  Marion County 4-H’ers receive lakeside paddling instruction from their 4-H Agent Rebecca Danley before venturing out on nearby Bear Creek.

Before setting out on any over-water adventure, it is important that young people learn the fundamentals of kayaking such as selecting the right size boat and paddle and how to maneuver. All classes include a dry-land instruction component so that everyone has the opportunity to familiarize themselves with their small craft and get the lowdown on staying safe and having fun.

A sight you will always see at RiverKids programs is participants wearing properly fitting personal flotation devices, or PFDs. We pride ourselves on water safety and risk management practices. PFDs often get a bad rap, as they can be bulky and awkward (which is why you need one that is made for paddling), and can be viewed as uncool. By making time for the children to splash around and float through swift water on their backs, they become accustomed to that extra-protective layer.

Alabama 4-H’ers covered hundreds of miles on beautiful waters like Big Wills Creek, Elk River, Sandy Creek, Coosa River and Bear Creek, and reservoirs such as Wedowee and Wheeler, and learned about what goes into the management of their natural resources.

USFWS Biologist Daphne Moland brought awareness about threatened and endangered species and how important clean waterways are to them.

Others such as Sam Sandlin of the Natural Resource & Conservation Service have educated our youth about the impacts of different types of land uses on water quality.

Future educational programs with 4-H RiverKids include pollution prevention, river-basin geology, wetlands and kayak fishing.

With the help of donors such as the Alabama Power Co. Foundation, TVA, Alabama RC&D and Alabama 4-H Club Foundation the program is made possible in Franklin, Limestone, Marion, Walker, Marshall, Jackson, Cherokee, Etowah, Clay, Shelby, Tallapoosa, Calhoun, Coosa, Randolph, Chambers, Autauga, Elmore, Escambia, Dale, Houston, Barbour and Covington counties.

Alabama 4-H and ASRT aspire to bring paddling opportunities to young people and families spanning all 67 counties to connect them to the many miles of rivers and streams in their own backyard. Though RiverKids is currently being offered in 22 Alabama counties, its success suggests it will continue to grow into other parts of the state. Not only do participants learn about paddling and environmental awareness, they gain valuable life skills, and it’s been a real pleasure to witness all of the internal and external players come together to make it happen.


Emily Nichols is an Extension specialist with 4-H Natural Resources and Environmental Education.