PORT RICHEY — The kayak trip starts on land with paddle in hand. It has to because of the mass of kids lined up on the shore of Pasco County's Energy and Marine Center. Only a few have ever taken a turn at paddling before.
"You're going to embark on a journey. We're going to go around the mangroves. It will be fantastic," Donna Hoague tells her young charges from Northwest and Moon Lake elementary schools who are itching to get to it.
But first comes some dry-land practice.
Paddling 101 entails lessons on how to go forward and backward — an important skill should you find yourself heading for a low-lying mangrove branch or another boat. There's instruction on how to steer, too, and how to synch strokes with a partner in tandem kayaks.
Hoague knows the drill backward and forward. As the year-round instructor of elementary education at the EMC, she has encountered plenty of first-timers.
"If you get yourself in a pickle, who gets you out?" Hoague asks. "Don't point at me. It's tough love here at the EMC. You are getting yourselves out."
A few spins through the air, along with a rundown on safety rules, and the kids are ready to don their life vests. They partner up with fellow campers, volunteers or teachers serving as camp counselors before getting a shove out into the brackish water of the Salt Springs Estuary.
Kayaking is just one of the activities at the Pasco County schools' Pasco Environmental Adventure Camp Experience program, an educational summer camp experience offered for free to elementary and middle school students from Title 1 schools. This year, about 600 elementary and middle school students will rotate through the summer program.
"It's fun," said Helena Vunk, 9. "I love being active and here, there are a lot of activities to do."
Over four days, students trek to various educational sites to learn about the environment and hone their science skills through hands-on activities. All the while, they tote iPads so they can take photographs and log what they have learned for a final presentation of their summer adventures. Students also take pre- and post-PEACE program tests so learning can be measured, said camp instructor Tammy Hanlon, who during the school year works as a technical support teacher at West Zephyrhills Elementary School.
"This is the best way for kids to learn science — getting them out of the book and into the world," said Chris Nehr, PEACE program instructor and Bayonet Point Middle English teacher.
At the EMC, students embark on water-based lessons and learn about the role the estuary plays in protecting the fragile coastline and its tiny inhabitants. Aside from the kayak venture, students have opportunities to hunt for fiddler crabs, create painted fish prints and get a salty taste of the black mangrove leaves that hug the coastal waters.
It's hands-on, too, at Starkey Environmental Education Center, where student test the waters and study macroinvertebrates of the Pithlachascotee River, which eventually flows into the estuary. They also go on nature hikes in search of animal tracks and gopher tortoise holes, occasionally catching sight of the inhabitants.
"We saw two gopher tortoises, a snake and a frog," said Moon Lake Elementary student Savannah Smith, 10, adding, "I'm basically happy to see some of the friends I don't get to see over the summer."
At Safety Town, students study native plants, insects and animal tracks. A field trip to the Florida Aquarium in Tampa caps off an all-around good experience for students and instructors.
"I am having a ball," Hanlon said after releasing the female fiddler crab students had captured for studying. "This is what education should be — taking the kids out and doing hands-on.
"Learning about the river and the estuary by being there and being able to tie it all together. I like that the kids see the whole of nature."
"It's awesome," said Northwest Elementary student Logan Schlough, 8. "It's so much fun and you don't even know that you're learning."
Contact Michele Miller at [email protected] or (813) 435-7307. Follow her @mimichele525.