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Sierra Magazine
Into the Outdoors

The natural world is a scary unknown to many urban youngsters. After a few tries,though, familiarity breeds content.

by Tracy Baxter

This is not the New Orleans I encountered ten years ago, when a primordial heat thickened perspiration into a gummy body sheath. The last 48 hours have seen temperatures no higher than 63, and the rain's so heavy it wraps around Kate's car like an endless car wash.

Our first stop is the St. Thomas public housing projects in central New Orleans. We pick up the Taylors -- Dexter, Lucretia, and Nikia -- and pack them into the backseat. Dexter is disappointed to hear that some kids won't be joining us because of the weather.

Our drive across the Bonnet Carre Spillway and beyond is a 40-mile race with storms. Clabbering gray haze continually eclipses feeble patches of pale blue sky. "We need this to clear up so we can make it to Turtle Cove, you guys," Kate says.

"Dexter, you've got to wish hard for the clouds to go away." The girls snicker. Nikia demurs, "Miss Kate, I can't even stop a toilet from running." But Dexter isn't quite old enough to scoff at a sincere wish. He murmurs along with Kate for a reprieve.

Since 1976, the Sierra Club's Inner City Outing program has brought wilderness experiences to children much more familiar with concrete compounds than open space. Nearly 14,000 kids last year took to the hills, or to the shore, or to somewhere in between, led by volunteers like our driver, Kate Mytron. Kate's a veteran of the anti-war and civil-rights movements, dedicated to "sharing the world." But the kids aren't the only ones who profit from the experience. "It's so incredibly rewarding, rediscovering what it feels like to see frogs for the first time," says one leader. "Days after a trip, the volunteers still talk about the good time we had."

Off the Manchac exit ramp we slow down to look out for other members of our party. We roll up to Middendorf's parking lot for a pit stop but are shooed away by an approaching restaurant employee. He gestures broadly to a power line downed by whipping winds. Nature denies nature's call.

A quarter of a mile ahead we see a cluster of cars parked near a shack with a sign audaciously dubbing it "The Manchac Yacht Club." Nearby wait a passel of kids ages 7 to 14: John Kuss and his little brother, Clinton; the Webster sisters, Ronata and Danielle; and Shemeka Billo. The ICO leaders- Rogerwene Washington; Paul Bergeron and his teen son, Chad; Kate; and the director of the Turtle Cove research station, Bob Hastings-all confer earnestly over the weather. The kids don't seem to be in a hurry either way. The clothes-snapping wind amuses those who brave it, while those who stay in the cars watch the spectacle of all that fluttering clothing; that, and a tumbling flurry of frantic sparrows overhead.

I feel winds intent on swatting us into Lake Pontchartrain. Kate detects a lull. Damned if she isn't right. Within 20 minutes we're packing a boat, tightening fiery orange life jackets, and chugging into newly quiescent, open water.

Bob's call for help in manning the boat is irresistible to all but our youngest: Clinton hasn't made this trip before, and he's not about to spend his time crowded around the steering console. He crawls over sleeping bags, peering into our faces as if to confirm that the speed and the spray do indeed combine to make this one truly glorious moment. He clambers to his feet, claps his thigh, and points excitedly into the distance. "Land ho!" he crows. "Land ho!"

We soon disembark at the Manchac Wildlife Area research station, administered by Southeastern Louisiana University. The green and white building, our home for the next 24 hours, was once a private hunting and fishing lodge. Its three levels have been converted into a lab, sleeping quarters and dining hall, and a classroom.

Students from SLU come here for field research in aquatic biology, much like we'll be doing, though on a more modest scale. Rogerwene passes out pens and paper to catalog the flora we find traversing the first leg of the boardwalk. No sooner has she reminded the kids to be careful than we have our first horseplay casualty on the slippery boards of the canoe house. Danielle, a chatty imp, springs into the air and lands against Nikia, bringing the taller girl down flat. Adroitly stepping over her prone friend, Danielle innocently pronounces the obvious-"Ooh, she fell"-and skips off to join the others. I suspect Nikia is more surprised than hurt as she tenderly rubs the back of her head. Nor is she heartbroken when told to return to the station for rest, just to be on the safe side. Turtle Cove is old news to Nikia, and her gangly limbs and carefully placed twists of hair announce the birth of a teen with an associated disdain of kid stuff.

The others, though, are eager to explore. Sadly, the kids aren't seeing the original denizens of this water world. Logging companies, in a locust-like orgy of destruction, felled most of the cypress trees between the late 1890s and the 1950s. The few cypress here now, courtesy of an ongoing SLU restoration effort, are survivors of still another swamp bane, the red-fanged nutria, a rodent with an endless yen for saplings. A broad-leafed aquatic plant called bulls-tongue seems to dominate the marsh like a vast submerged herd of insolent bovines, but the kids' inspection turns up lavender iris, spiderwort, misty Spanish moss, and sundry colors, shapes, and fragrances-not to mention a panoply of bugs. Bob, the Turtle Cove director, calls us over to see what looks like a shivering mound of brown sugar on a piece of driftwood. When he tells the kids that the marooned ants are taking turns underwater so that they'll all have a chance to breathe, Danielle sees an excellent opportunity to work up a scare. "Ooooh, y'all," she coos. "Them's fire ants." But Lucretia, bringing into play her junior naturalist skills, disagrees. "No, they not. Them's sweet, sweet. I ain't afraid uh dem."

Plop! Shemeka's in the drink. She's climbed onto the lookout platform without incident, but in coming down takes a spill off the ladder, landing harmlessly, though noisily, into a foot of water. She wears the "oops" face, a blend of merriment and sheepishness as Rogerwene leads her back into the station to dry off. Inside, Bob has just fished one of several juvenile alligators out of a blue holding tank, offering its pale, banded underside for the touch. The boys tentatively run their fingers up its belly. Lucretia gives the reptile a more deliberate rub and watches its stubby legs slowly kick out. Bob tells them how scientists are testing transmitters to track alligator hatchlings' movements in the wild. But as the boys paddle their fingers in the shallow water, toothsome digits tinglingly close to those toothy maws, their minds are on what the creatures eat. "They've been raised in captivity so they eat mostly pellets," is Bob's mildly deflating answer. John, a chunky blond, still craves danger. Hands dripping, he flicks tank water in my face. "Gotcha!" he yells, and runs off.

Kate has set out sliced fruit and a bowl of chips on a long table in the station's dining hall upstairs. Kids pass back and forth, grabbing a tidbit then returning to their card and board games, but Shemeka stands very carefully placing a corner of each tortilla wedge in the middle of a red-flecked, shiny orange mousse, and chews in silent delight. It's a New Orleans favorite, Kate says: melted Velveeta and a can of Rotel diced tomatoes.

Between bites of goop, Paul tells me what's apparent to any visitor to the Crescent City-people here are big. In fact, a well-publicized report has just declared New Orleanians the fastest growing population in the United States-by weight, that is. This is no surprise. Any people who routinely eat bushels of the obscenely ugly crawdad (jubilantly exhorting the novice to "twist dey tail and suck dey head") can be expected to put away way too much of more appealing fare. And they do, provided it's fried, prepared with roux, or densely seasoned.

But obesity is New Orleans' more benign badge of distinction. Violent crime, the likes of which seem to come straight out of the reject pile of potboiler fiction, is another story. In 1995, the city's murder rate averaged one per day. Who's responsible? Several of the more infamous cases involved peace officers who protected and served their own shady interests: cops slaughtering witnesses during a restaurant heist, or murdering a woman who fingered a dirty colleague. But even a squeaky-clean police force would have trouble capping Big Easy lawlessness. "It's so brazen and so random," Kate says. "A thirteen-year-old boy was shot in the back of the head because he didn't get off a pay phone quick enough to suit a fourteen-year-old with a gun." Juveniles, in fact, are responsible for many of the nastiest offenses. "Teens think they're invincible, anyway. And I guess the heartlessness is another facet of that attitude," says Kate.

The dip bowl is emptying fast. I scrape the bottom with a chip and find, to my horror, that it is quite tasty. "Should I make some more?" I ask. "Yea," says Danielle. "But this time, hit it with a little uh dis heah." She hands over the green container of Tony Chachere creole seasoning she's found in the kitchen. "That'll make it good, yea."

That there is no time between snacks and dinner makes no difference to anyone. The kids take seats and the adults pass out plates with gooey squares of lasagna and piles of spinach salad with buttermilk dressing.

Inner-City Outing programs, including this one, frequently partner up with children's agencies ranging from the YMCA to pediatric AIDS care groups. Volunteers for ICO know that some of the kids are shouldering enormous burdens but are still sometimes taken aback by the particulars. Sven Thesen, a New Orleans leader, told me about a boy whose incessant need for attention was driving everyone crazy. "He was constantly acting out. We thought, 'never again,' but then we found out later that both his parents were in jail and that he had been abused and put in child porn."

A troubled background can lead to the unruliness that prompted one boy on an ICO trip to creep out and start up the boat, but harsh circumstances can also imbue them with a love of structure and cooperation. Displays of affection are open and frequent. "Sometimes you can't go out 15 feet without someone reaching for your hand or giving you a hug. Even the boys," says Sven. "They start off being cool, but they come around quickly."

The animated and easygoing nature of the children around our table belies the Dickensian loss and peril they've known. They're chatting, smiling, and digging into their plates-all except one. Paul notices Lucretia's silence first. "What's the matter, Lucretia? You don't like lasagna?" Eyes down, she shakes her head gloomily. "Well, do you like spaghetti?" She nods enthusiastically. I detect a small bid for special treatment in this hair-splitting. Evidently, Paul does too, but he decides not to make anything of it. "Well, that's precious," he says evenly, and continues eating. No longer in the spotlight, Lucretia picks up her fork and works on her meal.

The late-night boat ride in search of red-eyed alligators has been canceled-all right by me. Bob says that the high water would make maneuverability difficult. The girls and I will walk the quarter mile around the boardwalk by flashlight instead.

I am the only shrinking violet, inching along, careful not to drift too far left or right, calling out for the group to slow down. Nothing would be more mortifying to me than an involuntary dip with the residents of the marsh, a common apprehension of Turtle Cove's urban newcomers.

The trepidation a few of the new kids feel out of the city is foreign to some of the ICO leaders. "One kid said she was afraid of trees," an exasperated leader told me. But another was able to put herself in the kids' shoes: "Their experience and survival skills don't always match my values." Keeping those differences in mind helps explain why some kids appear uninterested in or resistant to some activities.

Bob has watched many kids evolve from fearful to exuberant after a few outings. "At first they think they'll see lions and tigers and bears. When they've assured themselves that there's no significant danger, they want to look and see. We don't teach them how. They teach themselves."

Danielle suddenly breaks out from behind, giving me one alarmingly unsteady moment along the swamp's edge, and scampers up to Paul with a request. Soon she's riding on his shoulders and chatting as brightly as though it were high noon at the playground. The clouds have cheated us out of starglow to light the way, yet-but for our voices and the bump and shuffle of feet-we still have the gift of silence. No speeding cars, no popping that could be the report of gunfire, and, by specific restriction, no personal radios. It's enough, really, to make you want to sing.

"Stop-in the name of love," Danielle pleads with a high, light tremolo, "bee-fore you break my heart." The other girls earnestly coo the refrain, "Think it over, think it over."

Someone calls out a dare to touch the weather station, a windmill-like apparatus connected to the boardwalk by a beam five feet long and no more than six inches wide. Ronata and Nikia are tonight's daredevils. A lance of light in front and behind her, Nikia scoots out, touches the structure, and scoots back to cheers. Ronata, whose round face has been placid all day, dashes out, scores, and returns in seconds. Caught up in the clapping and congratulations, she steps off the boardwalk and into the swamp.

I awaken at six a.m. to shrieking, as piercing as the hoots accompanying last night's slide show of Turtle Cove's greatest moments, but with a note of theatrical terror. The girls, sleeping together on the bottom of a bunk bed, are now up and swiping at their arms, ants taking hot nips on their skin, lured into the bed by a forgotten lollipop. "I like to died," Ronata exclaims. Danielle sweetly disavows any knowledge of who left the candy out.

A mammoth breakfast of hotcakes and strawberries fuels our last outing to the flooded backyard. By the time I arrive downstairs, the kids have collected a menagerie of water critters in a pail by dragging long-handled dip nets through the turbid, shallow water. Danielle walks primly up to the bucket with a look of immense satisfaction. In her hand is a piece of flashing quicksilver scarcely longer than a grain of rice. She drops the minnow in with the diving beetles, grass shrimp, and quarter-sized crabs, takes up her net, and rejoins Nikia in pulling through the muck and examining the catch.

Bob has unhitched the pirogues from the dock and Dexter and Lucretia quickly claim one of the flat-bottomed canoes. Evidently Lucretia has forgotten her somber mood of last night. With rolled-up jeans soaked well past her knees, she is an arm-flailing engine of gaiety as she pushes the vessel off. I notice Shemeka, a petite girl with dreamy looks, alone in a pirogue and hop in behind her. My modest paddling skills would strand us in open water, but here in the cove, aided by Shemeka'a faint but insistent stroking, I maneuver us out of vegetation nearly as fast as I steer us in. We manage to pull out ahead of the Kuss boys: an obvious invitation to a race. Chad gives the signal, and we're off in a contest where the object seems to be who can go the slowest while expending the most energy. Shemeka tightens her shoulders to stroke quickly, determined to pull us through to victory, and a fortuitous piece of driftwood blocking the boys' path gives us a win by inches. Puffing hard, Shemeka grins proudly.

Though the sun has yet to make an appearance, a pore-clogging, enervating heat has been creeping into the air. Catching her breath and suddenly looking fatigued, Shemeka whispers, "I want to stop now"-the first sentence I've heard from her. Shemeka is HIV positive, and sometimes the medications she takes to boost her immune system tucker her out. As Chad helps Shemeka out of the boat, I wonder if the drugs don't drain her in other ways, too. She sits on the boardwalk, watching her friends and smiling, wan, but without a trace of wistfulness.

An hour's play discharges the kids' energy. Back up in the classroom they calmly review their "Look, See, and Touch" work sheets from yesterday's excursion, play math games, and even manage to hold still as I sketch them. The contented quietude lingers on the ride back to the Yacht Club, the spray from the boat eliciting only the most meager of squeals from the girls.

Shemeka, our passenger on the way home, dozes off nearly immediately after buckling in. I ask Kate what she thought of our trip. Her reply echoes the comments on the children's handouts, where each of the letters in the words "Turtle Cove" starts off sentences describing our day: the rain wasn't fun but everything else was just fine.

Despite being cooped up more than we'd planned, the kids enjoyed each other's company and ate heartily-something some of them might not do consistently. I'm disquieted by the thought. When my grandma, the daughter of Louisiana sharecroppers, speaks of her childhood, she often mentions the fresh fruits and vegetables her mother would put up and the filling meals they made. My late mother talked about the many eggs she sacrificed in pursuit of the perfect butter cake. Physical hunger was never the issue for them, only the desire for life without the fetters of an infrangible social order. When my mom arrived in California that opportunity seemed more possible to find. With the support of a community made up of migrants like her, and night school, she moved us out of the projects in three years. Now, as the decline of Northern cities prompts some black folk to follow a south star back home, I wonder what the recourse is for those who never left.

How much ICO helps is a matter of perspective. The trips do not alter the fact that the Taylors, an extended family of ten, live on less than $400 a month and an allotment of food stamps. But the outings do add to the sense of well-being that keeps the Taylor kids on academic honor rolls. Kate tells me about two teens, Walter and John, five-year veterans of New Orleans ICO, who were recently invited by the Club to hike at its Clair Tappaan Lodge in the Sierra Nevada. They might one day evolve into environmental powerhouses, or they might not. No one in the ICO program presumes to perform miracles, but as Kate recalls her family's trips to the beach and the woods, and I think about a church trip when I drank, with an elated thirst, from a mountain stream until I like to burst, it's honest to say that some events change your life by encouraging you to seek out your place in the world. Maybe some of the kids will remember the trips to Turtle Cove as explorations that helped them decide where to go.


Tracy Baxter is Sierra's associate editor.

Find out more about the Sierra Club's ICO Program.


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