Some thirty years ago a small group of activists including legendary American folk singer Pete Seeger built and launched a replica of the sloops that carried cargo up and down the Hudson River in New York State more than 200 years ago.
The Clearwater was launched as a symbol of the glory of the Hudson River, its history, its culture and its ecology. Over the years the Clearwater has welcomed hundreds of school and community groups to study the environment of New York State's longest, and most important, river.
They arrive in yellow school buses on a rainy day for a voyage on a sailboat. But the downpour doesn't seem to dampen the spirits of the twenty or so 10-year-olds, who, from the moment they step aboard the Clearwater dressed in rain gear and life jackets, are immersed in the operation of a Hudson River sloop.
The Clearwater is docked at a narrow stretch of the river framed by hills in view of West Point, the United States Military Academy. It's here that the students learn the rules and the ropes.
For most of these third-graders from Austin Road Elementary School, about an hour's drive from the Hudson, it is the first time on the River and none has ever been on a sailboat. They line up and are told to tug on the lines to raise the mainsail.
Once the sail is up the Clearwater becomes a classroom where children learn lessons in river ecology and history. Sean Madden runs the education program on board.
Madden:"Now they are getting up close and personal," he says. "They are going to look at what we caught today. They are going to investigate some of the plankton, some of the lower levels of the food web and talk about their importance. They will use microscopes and magnifying glasses. They are going to do some water quality testing and will learn how we look at water to decide whether it's clean. They will go down below, which, of course is great on a rainy day like this. They will get to see what the Clearwater is like, what life aboard it is like, the community we are tying to foster not only on the boat, but with the environment and with world itself."
Skirble: "How important is the Hudson River to their daily lives?"
Madden: "It never ceases to amaze me that even when we sail with groups right on the Hudson River, even people who live two blocks away (that they) are completely disconnected from the river, and they are just amazed when we pull up fish."
One small group of students is encouraged by volunteer crewmember Laura Heady to reach in a fish tank and handle what was caught earlier in the net off the side of the boat.
Heady: "I'm trying to teach the kids what's unique about fish, about their anatomy, their behavior, what's beneficial about the way their bodies and their coloring is designed, to get them excited about the living creatures that are in the river."
Skirble: "Were you kids surprised about what you saw"
Skirble: "Which fish was the coolest?"
Kid: "The Hog Choker."
Skirble: "Why is it called a Hog Choker?"
Kid: "Because it choked pigs! The fishermen used to sell the [fish] to the farmers to give them to the pigs. And if the [pigs] swallowed [the fish] tail to head, the pig would choke. It feels like sandpaper."
Heady: "It's awesome that he remembered all that!"
But, the Hog Choker isn't the only memory these kids will take away from their day aboard the Clearwater.
Kid: "If you pollute the water, you can ruin it."
Skirble: "So, you learned that if you throw something in the water it stays there. And, [to another student] what was the best part for you?"
Kid: "Going downstairs. It was warm."
Skirble: And, it wasn't wet!"
Kid: "I liked the fishing too. I love fishing."
Skirble: "Would you like to come back again?
Kid: "Because it is fun!"
The teachers, volunteers and crew on the Clearwater say that's exactly as it should be. They say that connection with the Hudson is at the heart of the day's journey and critical to the future health of the river.