The kindergarteners from Coleman Place Elementary School nose down into the wetland. They touch the blades of arrow arum and spartina, twitching as they feel the sharp plants against their faces. One little girl spots a critter nestled in the leaves.
"I see something living!" she exclaims.
The deckhand educators who run the Elizabeth River Project's Learning Barge are hoping their young visitors see more than something. They want the children to see that the whole river is alive, to fall in love with it, and to cherish it into adulthood. If they succeed, they figure, these kindergarteners will become stewards of the river that has been Norfolk's lifeblood since the city's earliest days, sustaining both the nation's defense systems and its commerce.
It may be a lot to ask from a river that many residents declared dead not long ago. In the 1990s, the river was so polluted that, in many places, most of the fish had cancer. The vestiges of Norfolk's industrial past crowded its shores: creosote plants that treated wood, dry-dock companies where workers repaired and repainted ships, refineries and toxic dumps. No fewer than three Superfund sites sit along the Elizabeth's banks. Its once-famous Norfolk oyster hasn't been safe to eat since 1925.
But the children do not know all of this history. And on the Learning Barge, what they see is possibility. The floating classroom is 120 feet by 32 feet of interactive activities, from mucking about in wetlands to painting river art to feeling and seeing various habitats. Much of it is something they've never had a chance to see. Like many Chesapeake Bay cities, Norfolk suffers from a lack of public access to the shoreline. But the situation is even more acute there because it is one of the busiest ports and is ringed with secure Naval facilities where the public isn't allowed.
"Many of these inner-city children have never even been to the waterfront," said the Elizabeth River Project's executive director, Marjorie Mayfield Jackson. "So to be able to get out on the water, and look at the river water, and see why it's not safe to swim in, that was something we weren't able to do before."
Jackson admits that, for most of the Elizabeth River Project's life, she was focused on cleanup, not education.
"In the beginning, I was pretty impatient," she acknowledged. "I couldn't wait for the kids to grow up."
But she began to realize that, if the younger generation wasn't invested in the cleanup project's successes, the progress couldn't continue. And if the Elizabeth River truly wanted to become a swimmable and fishable river by 2020, it needed all hands on deck - even the smallest ones.
In 2008, Jackson began to move ahead, and her staff worked quickly. University of Virginia architecture students designed the $1 million barge, and construction was completed in 2009.
The barge is made from totally sustainable materials, and the only source of power is the electricity generated from sun and wind. It will hold 150 students at a time; 6,000 students a year visit the barge, mostly via school field trips. It costs $163,000 a year to operate - a portion of that cost is paid for by the schools, but much of it comes from donations to the Elizabeth River Project.
To reach as many children in the four-city watershed as possible, every few months tugboats move the Learning Barge to locations in Norfolk, Chesapeake, Virginia Beach and Portsmouth. The teachers, known as "deckhand educators," avoid having children on board when the boat is moved. They want the children to pay attention to the wetlands and plants on board, not to the scenery on the horizon.
"We try to do as little lecturing as possible," said Robin Dunbar, the project's education director and its resident "Princess Elizabeth" for festivals and events. "The things they do here are things they have to do on the river. They can't duplicate it in the classroom."
Even the youngest visitors seem to get it. At the end of the 90-minute program, Dunbar asks the Coleman kids, "Do we have a living river?"
"Yes we do!" they shout back.
As she leads them in an exercise where they pretend to swim like fish and fly like pelicans, they repeat the promise that the river will be swimmable and fishable by 2020. Then, together, they sing this song:
"This river is mine,
This river is yours
Let's work together
And green her shores.
The river fish swim
The pelicans fly
Crabs are dancing
Oh me, oh my.
One day we'll swim
One day we'll fish
2020 is our plan,
And it is our wish."
As they disembark, Dunbar can't help but smile.
"I want them to touch the river, to feel it, to know what it's like to leave a soft footprint," she said. "My goal is, by the time they leave here, I want them to be in love with the river."