4th Graders Build Their Own Traditional Reed Boats (and Paddle Them Too!)

Photo by Will Meadows
Photo by Will Meadows

Young Explorer Will Meadows is building traditional canoes throughout the world’s ecosystems and indigenous communities, using the vessel as a lens into culture, identity, art, environment, and innovation.


Plunged into canoe-building cultures throughout many of Earth’s treasured places, I had the chance over the last year on a Watson Fellowship to learn from indigenous masters who are keeping world heritage alive. I worked with Zanzibari outrigger canoes fundis, Amazonia dugout canoe builders, and bamboo boat weavers of Vietnam. I had the honor to learn from Polynesian masters such as Hector Busby and Mike Tavioni. Yet of all the dozens of masters I worked with, perhaps the least expected, and most inspiring, are the meter-tall “masters” I found in the “remote” Sun Valley of Idaho.

4th Grade at the Community School in Sun Valley, Idaho, starts off a bit different than what you might have experienced as a kid. Students are instructed by their teacher Trent, a constantly laughing and lovable bear of a man with a red beard down to his chest. There are no semi-inspirational posters from the factory, there are no charts, nor agendas. The students entering 4th grade notice, wow, there aren’t even desks.

“What do you want to learn this year?” Trent says to his new 4th grade friends, filling his room, and their heads, with a powerful question. He pulls out a big sheet of construction paper. Together they draw a huge web of ideas, projects, questions, interests, simple word, and passions, and from that, teacher and students design their own, epic, curriculum.
After building their own desks, literally out of whatever they could find (skis, skateboard, aspen stumps, and recycled woods painted bright) the students decided to embark on a project to build a boat of reeds. Native peoples, migrating to find food throughout the region, had built these vessels along the Snake River, which rises in the Tetons, crosses southern Idaho, and meets the Columbia for a journey to the sea.

Trent and I brought some experience with reeds to the table, or should I say, hand-made desks. Trent travelled Titicaca by bike in the 80’s. I built reed boats with masters in Titicaca, Huanchaco, and Lake Tana in Ethiopia. Yet when we arrived at Celebration Park, a new protection and education area, the aim was not to replicate the boats, but rather innovate.

Celebration Park is a flower bed of ancient artifacts from hunting, rock drawings, and stone tools. Visitors learn to throw atlatls and make arrow heads. With 10,000-year-old signs of humanity in the park, it was interesting we chose to bring back to life an artifact most ephemeral- a bundle of reeds that will last only a year before decomposing. Yet the kids are focused on doing something in the present, influenced by how things may have been done in the past. “How will we tie them together?”, “Should we weave them?”, “How much reed will float me?” the kids asked, not looking for a fact, but rather an experiment.

Photo by Will Meadows
Photo by Will Meadows

The sun makes wide shadows on the river from the majestic rock canyon where kids take turns in a canoe cutting reeds for our boats. They are split into groups and given the task to tie four bundles of slightly dried reeds. From pictures and intuition, the kids know that wrapping two bundles like a pontoon the boat will be balanced. Reeds fly everywhere over the rock bank, rope is whizzed about, and every element of the boat is brainstormed. By the end of the afternoon, we have four bundles that looks very tempting to float on.

“All those insects are getting eaten by the fish that swim up this river. Those fish are the reason people would come to the river”, explains Bob, a calm and comedic science teacher,  to a group of students who are pushing through the reeds on the bank to get a view of the fish. As Bob explains principles of ecology to the attentive kids I can’t help but think how much it sounds like an interesting uncle teaching life lessons, the one’s I always remembered as a kid. Ecology, history, craft, community, and so many other important concepts come through because there are important, not because they are policy or priority. One student even brought his fly fishing rod on the trip and stayed “in class” listening to Bob about where he might find a fish to bite a fly he tied himself.

On the project, we are literally creating the curriculum in the field. Some historical documentation exists on the “cattail people” and other ancient Native Americans such as the Shoshone, Bannock, and Paiute people who develop amazing traditions in the Snake River Valley, largely around the Salmon migrations. There’s almost none about the Snake River reed boat. We had to answer the question “how do you do this?” with “how do you think we should do this?”. The kids learned, and largely already knew through play and imagination, how to be resourceful and think with their hands.

Photo by Will Meadows
Photo by Will Meadows

“Don’t you think we should use stronger rope?” One of the kids said, elbows deep in a bundle of reeds with two other girls wrapping twine around to make half the hull. The other girl agreed and said “we should wrap it with bigger rope”. “Why don’t we use rope we made ourselves?” the same girl said, pushing her hair from her face. “Let’s try it” I said. All the kids agreed, and learned to make rope from cattails during our week back at the Community School. When we left the park, kids were already making rope on the bus.

Photo by Will Meadows

A crowed of supportive parents were waiting at the school. “Mom, this is the reed boat we built” one student says proudly, leading her attentive mother to a reed filled trailer behind the school bus, “It paddled great” she smiles. Trent and I are sitting on the trailer with the Idaho sun overhead. We say goodbye to each child, whose excited parents pick them up not as a chore, but as an opportunity.

When everyone is gone, Trent leans over “I think what we are trying to do, is get rid of the fear of failure in these kids. We learn from failure. That allows us to try all kinds of projects. If they can at least try and try, and have fun doing it, then there is no failure. There’s only success.” He laughs hard at this, making his whole beard shake. That is how this sort of project doesn’t just mean reinvigorating history, but also preparing a mindset for the future. I take a look back at our reed boats, and I feel proud, proud as a 4th grader.

Photo by Will Meadows
Photo by Will Meadows

NEXT: Explorer builds historical boat, recreates 200-year-old American river survey

Storyteller. Designer. Environmental Advocate. Many roles allow me to follow my passions and interests in our vast world of wonderful people and places. I am a National Geographic Young Explorer and 2012-2013 Watson Fellow, where through my work entitled Humanity's Vessel, I build traditional canoes around the world's ecosystems and indigenous communities, using the vessel as a lens to culture, identity, art, environment, and innovation.
  • a boy

    nice pic

  • linda chamberlain

    This is what learning is all about. We can look at the “Brain Rules of Learning” and what developing brains need to reach their potential and this experiential learning reaches all of the benchmarks. This is how we all should strive to teach and learn.

  • Paul Miquelon

    Briiiiant, wish I was there.

  • M OudshoornFuller

    Attended this school in 80’s and the teachers were, even then, the cream of the crop.

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