The newest of Minnesota's five national park sites sits right in the middle of the state's biggest population center.
The Mississippi National River and Recreation Area encompasses 72 miles of the river, from the town of Ramsey south to Hastings, including through downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul.
"We're easy to find," said Park Superintendent Paul Labovitz. "We're seen by most folks every day multiple times. It makes it easy to bring kids down here to learn about history, nature, science because we're not a four-hour bus ride away -- in some cases a walk from the schoolyard."
One way Labovitz is taking advantage of its proximity to those schoolyards is by setting a new goal to bring 10,000 kids a year down to the river. Very few other national parks in the country have easy access to numbers like that.
What most other parks have, that MNRRA does not, is land. When the park was created in 1988, Congress was trying something new. It created a "partnership park" that did not take away land from private owners or from the state or local governments.
Instead, the park is an overlay of the lands owned and operated by cities, counties, private owners and the state of Minnesota. They still control their land, but they also became part of the National Park Service.
Without land to maintain, the MNRRA is really a grand convener of all the various agencies and governments with land along the river. It helps those groups work together on projects like historic preservation, native plant restoration and community education.
This summer, for example, a team of naturalists has been tracking river otters, whose activity on the river knows no jurisdictional boundaries.
While adding another government entity could further muddy the waters, Department of Natural Resources water trails director Erik Wrede says the opposite has been true.
"They're actually bringing people together to clear the waters," Wrede said. "It's a great example of multi-agency partnership. It's anywhere from the local park system to the DNR to nonprofits."
On one recent morning, a partnership between the MNRRA and the outdoors group Wilderness Inquiry brought 140 St. Paul public school students to the river for a half-day canoe trip. Starting from Hidden Falls Regional Park, the students would paddle 10-person cedar strip voyageurs canoes downstream to Raspberry Island in downtown St. Paul.
"I used to think you had to drive 200 miles to be in the environment, and I didn't think of coming down here," said Graig Lais, the founder of Wilderness Inquiry. "What I've seen happen with young kids is it sparks their interest. I have a teenage son, and half the battle is getting his attention. When you watch those kids get in the boats down here and shove off, they are riveted. They are paying attention."
In an obvious nod to Minnesota's most celebrated canoeing area, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area or BWCA, Wilderness Inquiry calls this program the Urban Wilderness Canoe Adventure, or UWCA. Lais hopes young people will enjoy their experience on the river enough to pursue canoeing or other outdoors activities elsewhere with their families.
Hidden Falls is in the Mississippi River gorge, where the scenery is trees and water, and the only hint that civilization is nearby comes from the dull roar of airplanes at Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport, just out of sight downstream.
The landscape leads many of the students to think they're farther from home and school than they actually are. In fact, no part of St. Paul is more than five miles from the Mississippi River.
Even adults are largely ignorant of the massive river in their midst, and even the ones who do visit the river don't know they're in a National Park Service site.
"The people who visit the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area is about nine million people a year. So we are actually one of the most visited units of the national park system," Labovitz said. "Our challenge here is to make folks aware that they're actually visiting a national park when they go to Fort Snelling State Park, or Minnehaha Falls or Hidden Falls."
Standing on the riverbank in pastel-colored life jackets, many of the students admit to being just a bit nervous about their first canoe experience. A boy named Nathaniel worries his canoe may tip over, though his Wilderness Inquiry guide says it won't happen if everyone in the boat follows the rules.
Once out on the river, nervous energy creates more splashing than propulsion from the paddles. But the flotilla does make its way slowly downstream.
The Wilderness Inquiry guides tell students about water quality, about the geology of the river gorge -- which was carved by the massive St. Anthony Falls, that now sits paved over in downtown Minneapolis -- and about the trading and military history of Fort Snelling, which comes slowly into view high on the bluff above.
Below the fort, more than a dozen canoes "gunnel up" -- gather together -- just off the shore of Pike Island, where the Mississippi River meets the Minnesota River. Ranger Wiggins explains that this place has been sacred to Native Americans for hundreds of years and remains so today.
It's hard to tell if this hidden history resonates with the students, but the next sight definitely does. A bald eagle soars low over the river, landing dramatically in a dead tree near the shore. Students gasp and point.
It's the first of three eagles these students will encounter today. Eagles are common on the river now, but are rarely seen elsewhere in the city.
As the day heats up and arms get tired, the canoes spread out along the river. But a noise from upstream forces everyone to steer their boats to the right of the main channel. The huge barge and towboat rumbling towards the students is a reminder that this river is also a working highway.
While MNRRA staff hope the students learned something about their environment or history, the teachers in the group have a different goal.
Sarah Young, a teacher at Highland Park Jr. High in St. Paul, says the history and nature along the way are nice, but that kind of learning isn't as important as learning "to work together to achieve a goal, and that they can depend on each other."
Reaching goals is so important for these students because they're all part of a program called AVID -- Advancement Via Individual Determination -- for students who say they want to go to college someday.
Rowing out of the gorge, condos and office buildings come into view and the students start to feel a little closer to home.
As they step carefully out of their boats at Raspberry Island, some students speculate they rowed 30 miles today -- maybe 40. In reality, the trip was no more than seven miles, but the landscape has transformed almost completely.
Whatever the students learned today, park rangers hope they've become curious enough about the river in their midst to pay another visit, maybe with their families.
"I want them to go home tonight and be all excited about this," said the DNR's Erik Wrede. "The more people you get to appreciate nature on a river like this, the more advocates you've got for its protection."