On a chilly, sunless day like Wednesday, canoeing probably doesn't come to mind as a top recreational choice. Nonetheless, about 80 high school students from North Dakota and Minnesota braved 40-some-degree temperatures, brisk winds and a brief downpour for a canoe trip on the Red River.

"It's fun this year to get them out paddling; we don't always get to do this," said Andy Ulven, a monitoring and education specialist with the International Water Institute.

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The students were part of the Red River Basin's River Watch program, coordinated by the International Water Institute. Formed after the 1997 flood, the institute has a variety of programs promoting citizen watershed education and flood research. Currently, five schools in North Dakota and 18 in Minnesota participate in the International Water Institute.

Early Wednesday morning, students from Cavalier, Minto and Valley-Edinburg in North Dakota and East Grand Forks' Sacred Heart, Fisher and Red Lake Falls in Minnesota gathered in Grand Forks' Lincoln Park. Rain or shine, the event was going forward. The International Water Institute partnered with Wilderness Inquiry to organize the canoe excursion.

Wayne Goeken of the International Water Institute started River Watch in 1995. It began as a water-quality monitoring program and uses a variety of tools to gauge watershed health while also providing students with learning opportunities.

According to Goeken, some metrics used by students include snow studies, observing the types of bugs in the water to make inferences about water quality and canoe trips to see erosion patterns and other clues. He called River Watch an "outdoor classroom."

"We really emphasize the scientific protocols, so it's all valid data that's used for decision-making," Goken said.

Large River Watch paddling trips such as this week's outing happen about once every two years. Normally students participate in River Explorers, which takes them on smaller canoe trips in local rivers.

However, involvement with the International Water Institute is not limited to high school students. Fourth-graders participate in River of Dreams - a program in which they envision where they would want to paddle - and decorate 14-inch cedar canoes to launch in rivers local to their schools. The canoes contain tracking devices so the students can learn about watershed routes by recording where the boats end up.

The full-size canoes used on Wednesday's excursion - constructed from a mix of cedar and Fiberglas - are handmade in St. Paul by the Northwest Canoe Co. and can weigh up to 300 pounds. They take up to a year to build from start to finish and cost about $14,000 each.

River Watch took students canoeing in the Thief River Falls area Tuesday, and a third trip is planned today in Moorhead. For more information on the International Water Institute and its programs, visit www.iwinst.org/.