NEW ULM - Like many inspired efforts, this one had a modest beginning.
In 2009, a small group of New Ulm outdoor enthusiasts asked themselves how to best share the pleasure they derived from outdoor outings.
They decided to invite young people to join their ongoing efforts at relocating stranded mussels.
The photos above, courtesy of River Ranger leaders Ron Bolduan and Lori Wengert, showcase just some activities of the River Ranger Program. Activities overall include nature outings, visiting places along the Minnesota River scenic byway, clam and mussel recovery walks, leaf cleanups, programs in the Public Library, hikes in winter, etc., etc.
Minnesota's freshwater mussel population is suffering a serious decline, so in low-water periods the group patrols the Cottonwood River and moves mussels from cutoff areas to main channels. The goal is to improve mussels' prospects of survival.
In light of public interest displayed during DNR ecologist/mollusk expert Mike Davis' 2009 mussel survey of the Cottonwood River, it seemed the perfect kickoff project.
Mindful of the competition for young people's time, the group labeled the outing "a mussel rescue/shell gathering adventure" - more alluring than asking youngsters to join in for a walk in the river.
Lori Wengert on teaching:
"Each of the volunteers has something different to bring to the group. My passion is the 'teaching lessons.' I guess that would make me the 'bad guy' in the group for wanting the kids to learn when they are not in school, so the pressure is on me to find fun ways to accomplish this.
"I have four display boards that I work with. My goal is to have the kids so comfortable with these boards that in September, when we have a picnic at Riverside Park for the whole community, the kids will take my place and use these boards to teach the public what they have learned and experienced from them.
"The first one is on insects. Kids love to smash bugs or trap them in bottles, etc. So this board is titled 'Let's BEE Friends.' We play a game with plastic bugs to learn interesting facts, then we have a small quiz to retain the facts. Once they learned the importance of insects, we created a wildflower garden at Riverside Park to make a home for them. The River Ranger group is responsible for all future maintenance of the garden. I think that it will be great that some day, these kids can bring their kids, grandkids to the park and show them their creation.
"The second board is titled 'Please Help Us.' It focuses on the critters that live in the woods and how important it is to 'reduce, reuse, recycle' to save the trees and habitat for these animal friends. We will be making bird feeders out of milk cartons for the fun project with this one. We have also made peanut butter feeders out of pinecones to help the birds and squirrels over the winter.
"The third board is titled 'Please Clean Me.' It focuses on the history of the Minnesota River and how the state was named after this beautiful river, but now it is one of the most polluted in the nation. It's not hard to make this project fun. What kid isn't going to enjoy taking a walk in the river? They don't even seem to mind the fact that they have to pick up litter in the process. I have also added information on how the kids can scold their parents at home for things they may be doing that cause pollution to run into the street drains and pollute the river. The kids understand the importance of keeping all street drains clean and free of debris, and hopefully will teach others and pass this on over the years to come.
"The fourth one is titled 'Please Save Us.' It focuses on clams/mussels and how the numbers have dropped drastically, and we need to do our part to save them before they are extinct. Again, no kid minds walking the Cottonwood River in search of a clam/mussel that they can become a hero to. We also collect small shells on the sandbars to use for crafts, and of course, pick up litter on our treks."
The group is planning a picnic at Riverside Park Sept. 4, to show off their accomplishments to the public, Wengert adds.
"Seeing how these kids have grown and have such an appreciation for nature, and hearing from their parents that they automatically pick up litter in parking lots, etc., without even thinking about it, makes me very proud and happy to be part of this great organization, and makes it all worth it."
Between the appeal of helping save a species in trouble and collecting shells for the group's mussel display at the Regional River History Center of New Ulm, the participants clearly found the treks rewarding.
The positive response inspired the organizers to begin planning a long-range effort at involving young people, and the River Ranger Program was born.
By August 2010, the mission and guidelines were defined, and the program was ready to proceed.
The River Ranger Program is a free effort fostering a better understanding and appreciation of nature and rivers, explains Lori Wengert, who, along with Chad Wengert and Ron Bolduan, leads the program.
"We welcome nature lovers of any age, but ask that kids under 8 are accompanied by an adult or at least an older sibling. We strive to clean up the environment while having fun and learning in the process."
The group does several types of nature outings: visiting places along the Minnesota River scenic byway, nature walks, clam and mussel recovery walks and leaf clean-ups. They maintain a wildflower garden at Riverside Park, conduct programs in the basement of the New Ulm Public Library over the winter months, and much, much more.
To achieve River Ranger status, participants must accumulate three points from two categories: In-Field Environmental Learning and Environmental Cleanup. One of the three points must come from cleanup. In-field activities include group trips to DNR scientific nature areas, state parks, national wildlife refuges, learning centers, river walks, etc. Attending monthly lectures during the winter months also qualifies as in-field learning.
Cleanup activities are either taking part in a group clean-up project, such as a spring or fall leaf cleanup, or gathering litter during hikes and river walks.
Some of the rewards are River Ranger buttons, T-shirts, certificates, shell bottles, crafts - and a lifelong appreciation of nature, says Wengert.
The River Ranger Program focuses primarily, but not exclusively, on youth participation. Adult assistants also qualify for River Ranger status. With an all-volunteer staff, adult helpers are needed for the program to function. Adult staff displaying the River Ranger buttons encourages young participants to view the program as more than "kids' stuff."
The program takes in no government funding.
"Since we are a free program, we totally rely on donations," says Wengert.
Just recently, for example, the Optimist Club of New Ulm, Shayds of Color and the Don Wendel Agency donated digital camera kits for the group, to create and host an annual Ranger craft and photo exhibit at Riverside Park.
"We have been very lucky with the number of individuals and businesses that have helped us out; too many to list, but I would like to say that this program would not be possible without each and everyone of them. Not only do we, the staff, appreciate it, but our kids do also," says Wengert.
In return, Wengert schedules events titled "River Rangers Give Back." Two have been held this year. After Casey's donated coupons for the youth to receive a free slice of pizza when they do cleanups, the Rangers spent a Saturday cleaning their parking lot and surrounding grass areas. After Burger King donated money to buy the T-shirts, the Rangers did the same around Burger King.
"We won't have time to repay every single donor, but I would like everyone interested in donating to know that this means so much to us, and the kids do understand that they don't get something for nothing. A very good lifelong lesson, I think," muses Wengert.
To join or ask questions, contact the group at: e-mail: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org; phone: Lori Wengert, 507-217-7062; Chad Wengert, 507-217-6048; Ron Bolduan, 507-354-8367. The River Rangers have a Facebook information page and a Facebook group people can join to receive schedules of upcoming events: River Ranger Program.