The eight-day, seventy-mile canoe trip that extends from the headwaters of the Elkhart River near Merry
Lea all the way to Lake Michigan has been a highlight of the Sustainability Leadership Semester for the
past eight years.
“The amazing thing about sustainability is how interdisciplinary it is,” said Tom Hartzell, Merry Lea
coordinator for residential programs & environmental science educator. “It connects to anything and
everything, and the canoe trip is a great example of this. It’s a big highlight for a lot of students.”
This year, due to COVID-19, there was some debate as to whether the trip was still going to be able to
operate in the same way it had in the past.
Still, Hartzell knew the trip was key to understanding the region.
“Put simply, we all live downstream,” he said. “No matter where we live, the things that people choose to
do upriver can have impacts—positive or negative—on those downstream.”
The canoe trip represents the practical way Merry Lea teaches students what is downstream from them.
“To approach sustainability this semester, Sustainability Leadership Semester students get to know and
experience directly the people and other living things we may affect through our actions when we are the
ones upriver,” Hartzell said.
Fortunately for SLS students this semester, COVID-19 has had little effect on the content of the trip.
Education is still the main focus on this trip with many stops along the river to meet with local leaders
and experts from local politicians to researchers with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
Hartzell was thrilled with how little had to change for the trip.
“Frankly there has never been a better time to have a small, outdoor-based cohort learning model,” he
said. “Being able to meet with our guest speakers outside right along the river goes a long way in helping
everyone feel more comfortable, and it lowers risk in a real way.”
COVID-19 has been a testament to the resilience of schools and businesses to react quickly to changing
social and healthcare norms. On a personal level to Goshen College, the SLS canoe trip is an opportunity
for students to develop this real-world self resiliency.
“I learned on the canoe trip that you can be alone without it feeling really isolating,” junior Elena Meyer
Reimer said. “I really took away—after the trip—this idea that silence and slowness don’t have to mean
awkwardness or lack of motivation. Sometimes it's nice to take more time than is necessary.”
Meyer participated in the 2019 canoe trip.
According to Tom Hartzell students have responded well to the new guidelines needed to run the trip
“The students in this SLS cohort have been amazing at adhering to the Big Four,” Hartzell said. “I am so
proud of them and grateful that they have taken it so seriously.”