Thanks to a 2023 Go Outside Fund grant from the Foundation, 46 students from Webster Middle School canoed the Namekagon River, fearlessly led by their science teacher, Keith Kemp. 

Read on to learn more about Keith’s experience leading his 8th grade students out on the river where they engaged in hands-on learning about what makes a healthy watershed, and had some fun along the way.

Students canoeing on the Namekagon River

Students canoeing on the Namekagon River. Photo by Keith Kemp

Healthy watersheds…

The Namekagon River is a quiet river flowing through the forest and wetlands of northwestern Wisconsin. On this day, however, the normally quiet river is a bit louder. This is not surprising when 46 middle school students are canoeing the river. When we get to the river, the students excitedly gather around, unloading canoes and planning who is sitting where.

The skill level of the student paddlers varies greatly. Some are pros, others instantly start going sideways down the river. A few boys decide it would be better to stand and paddle their canoe, as one would a paddleboard. Luckily this portion of the Namekagon River is slow moving and shallow (the deepest holes are waist-deep) with a sandy bottom.

Normally the river is very peaceful and quiet, but when you take a group of middle school kids there, things definitely change!
Keith Kemp

7th & 8th grade science teacher

…and tipped canoes

The sun is shining, and this will be one of the last hot days we have left in northern Wisconsin. The temptation of the cool water becomes too much for some students. Soon, the canoes start flipping. The normally athletic boys bump their canoes against a rock or log, instantly “losing their balance” and crashing into the cool waters. Kids are laughing and splashing in the water. The girls are shrieking in their canoes at the boys to stay away (it should be noted that none of the canoes paddled by girls ended up flipping, which probably isn’t surprising to anyone who teaches middle school).

I paddle up to the front of the group with 3 canoes full of students (I used a kayak which helped paddle around amongst the groups of students quickly). Leading the pack, we paddle ahead of the canoe flippers and things are a little more peaceful. We observe whitetail deer, hooded mergansers, wood ducks, and redhorse suckers using the river. We soon reach the midpoint of the trip and break for lunch.

Students standing on the bank of the Namekagon River.

Middle schoolers standing on the bank of the river. Photo by Keith Kemp

Hands-on learning about water quality

We meet up with the bus that is waiting for us at the halfway point of our trip. As students eat lunch, I help them measure different factors that impact water quality. Two boys are wading out to the middle of the river to measure the temperature of the water, which they assure me is very cold after they flipped their canoe. Other groups of students are measuring pH, nitrates, turbidity, and dissolved oxygen.

The students are excited to continue down the river. I paddle around the corner and see a random blue kayak parked on an island and a lady helping some of the students bail water out of their canoe. The boys tell me, “We flipped the canoe right in front of her. It was kinda embarrassing.”

Many students claim that this is the best day of school they have had. We arrived at the take out launch, many students wishing we could go on longer. However, we are running late and have to quickly load up the canoes before the kids head back to school.

Students canoeing on the Namekagon River.

Students canoeing on the Namekagon River. Photo by Keith Kemp

When you take a big group of middle school students outdoors, there is definitely never a dull moment. I feel that you kind of have to embrace this at times. We learned about how scientists can collect data to determine if a watershed is healthy or not. Many students really start to care a little more about watersheds when they can actually get in the water, float in a canoe, and see the fish and wildlife.

aeriel shot of kids in a canoe

Aerial shot of three children in a canoe. Photo by Keith Kemp

Student reflections: What makes the Namekagon River so healthy?

After the trip, we reflected on what makes the Namekagon River so clean. Students came up with a wide variety of answers:

“The Namekagon River is a healthy watershed because it has trees and rock and moss so the runoff from rainwater is filtered and clean when it goes into the river.”

“The river was clean because there were also tons of fish like bass, bottom feeders and tiny fish.”

“The water must be clean because when I accidentally drank it, the water tasted good.”

At the end of the trip, all students gained an appreciation for the outdoors. While taking a group of students outdoors can be a lot of work, the end results are always worth it.

Guest Blogger

Guest Blogger

Keith Kemp

7th and 8th grade science teacher at Webster Middle School in Webster, Wisconsin

Keith led his 8th grade life science class on this canoeing trip to learn about what makes a healthy watershed, using the Namekagon River as an example.

Supporting nature-based learning experiences

Thank you to NRF’s supporters who make work like this possible! Our members helped support this educational canoeing trip through the Go Outside Fund.

The Go Outside Fund provides funding that helps connect youth to outdoor, nature-based learning experiences. Teachers or partner organizations may apply for funding to cover costs that facilitate getting kids outside and hands-on with nature, such as purchasing field supplies, or paying for transportation, substitute teachers, or educator costs.

Interested in supporting nature-based learning experiences? Donations to the fund can be made online at and should be designated to the “Go Outside Fund.”

Photo courtesy of Keith Kemp