A few weeks ago, one of our past “sojourn babies,” Kevin Rudisill, called our office to ask if I would discuss the Chesapeake Bay at an eighth-grade Earth Day assembly. I told him I’d be honored.

I hadn’t seen Kevin since the Alliance organized its last Susquehanna Sojourn in 2009. Then, he was an adorable, active boy with chubby cheeks who liked to hang out with the ground crew when the weather for paddling was bad. He was maybe 10 or 11.

When Cindy Dunn, the first Pennsylvania director of the Alliance who is now with Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, founded the Susquehanna Sojourn in the late 1980s, the idea was to get people in river towns familiar with their local waterway — and the Bay. “The Chesapeake Bay seemed very far away to Pennsylvanians,” Dunn said when describing how the idea came to her. “How could we ask people to care about the Bay when they didn’t know much about their own rivers?”

For more than 20 years, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay organized, funded and staffed a collection of River Sojourns. The oldest of these, on the Susquehanna, lasted multiple days; camping and paddling along more than 100 miles of the river.

The Alliance has been on a mission to connect people with the Bay watershed and its rivers ever since. Soon after the Susquehanna Sojourn began, cadres of canoes and kayaks began appearing on the Patuxent and Potomac rivers in Maryland and the James River in Virginia. Sojourns were organized on the Bay itself. In Pennsylvania, we took on a different section of the Susquehanna each year, from the headwaters in Otsego Lake, NY, to its mouth in Havre De Grace, MD.

Often, local officials would join the sojourn, seeing their river from a different point of view for the first time. It was an education for the mayor of a river town to paddle with these flotillas populated with citizen emissaries for clean water.

The Susquehanna Sojourn continues, the torch having been passed to the Susquehanna Greenway Partnership. The Susquehanna now boasts three sojourns: a North Branch Sojourn in both Pennsylvania and New York and the West Branch Sojourn.

In fact, various organizations are offering 15 sojourns this year that span the Lehigh River in the East to the Monongahela River in the West. In New York, a new group, the Headwaters River Trail, is hosting the North Branch Susquehanna Sojourn.

One of the newer sojourns in Pennsylvania, and a personal favorite, is the Yellow Breeches Youth Sojourn. It makes me think of Kevin and the other youths who had the sojourn experience early and connected to the river.

New river trips are starting annually. Just as the Susquehanna is a tributary of the Bay, its own tributaries now have sojourns with dedicated followers and organizers: The Juniata River and the Swatara Creek have had annual events for several years.

This rich history of trips on the river brings back memories of warm nights sleeping on the banks of the river; children staying up as late as possible by the fire, playing Uno or listening to veteran sojourners spin their tales; water fights; crazy meal lines; shuttle buses; chasing mosquitoes; herding cats…

But all of this nostalgia about river sojourns reminds me that June is National Rivers Month. It has been nearly 40 years since the passage of the Clean Water Act. Without question, our waterways have improved dramatically as a result. Rivers don’t catch fire anymore and raw sewage isn’t the norm in our local waterways. But our rivers still need our help.

Our understanding of the problems facing our rivers has grown. But with a growing understanding has also come new challenges. It’s complicated. We still have a lot of work to do to clean up our rivers and streams and make sure we can enjoy them without fear.

More and more people are drawn to the water. One of the fastest growing outdoor recreational activities in the United States is water sports. Kayak fishing leads the list, according a NetTrailhead.com, a New England outdoor recreation travel website. That’s a sport where you need water and fish. Clean water.

Rivers are embedded in the Alliance’s culture. The Alliance has always placed its focus on rivers, or more importantly on one’s local stream or creek.

In addition to sojourns, we implement all kinds of projects and programs that work with local streams and watershed groups and provide training to help spread the word about caring for local rivers.

I’d like to think that we have a more river-savvy citizenry because of the thousands of people the Alliance has gotten on the river — and the many others who traveled on river trips inspired by the Alliance. We may have been the first organization hosting these large trips; we certainly aren’t the only ones or the last. And there is no shortage of children (and adults) who would benefit from the lessons a river can teach.

Kevin was a main coordinator for the Earth Day assembly at the Cumberland Valley Middle School in Central Pennsylvania. No teachers got up and made announcements or shuffled children to their seats. Four eighth-graders did all of the work.

As I waited my turn, I was trying to think of the best way to talk to such young students about things like dissolved oxygen, dead zones and nutrient pollution that flowed downstream. I had no idea what they knew.

The program began and the large screen on the stage flashed images of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Bay Report Card, old photographs of protests against pollution in the 1970s and old newspaper photos of the Cuyahoga River Fire of 1968. Kevin and another boy talked about runoff and nutrient pollution — using a white board with little drawings of fish that they crossed out as the pollution got worse. They used humor and color to get their points across about while the serious work we have ahead of us to restore the Bay.

I was talking to an educated population of 82 eighth-graders. They give me hope.

Upcoming Sojourns

Yellow Breeches Youth Sojourn: June 10–12. Yellow Breeches Watershed Association. 
North Branch Susquehanna New York: June 14 –17. Headwaters River Trail. 
Juniata River: June 15–20. Juniata Clean Water Partnership. 
Susquehanna North Branch, PA: June 20–24. Endless Mountain Outfitters. 
Lehigh River: June 22–25. Wildlands Conservancy. 
Delaware River (PA, NY, NJ): June 24–30. The Delaware Sojourn. 
Ohiopyle Over the Falls Festival: Aug. 18.