Group building environmental learning center near Brookside

Published 8:48 am Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The past few years interest in canoeing and kayaking has risen in Albert Lea and now several people are working to build an environmental learning center near the Brookside landing.

A need for a proper facility to store the canoes, kayaks and standup paddleboards Albert Lea Community Education possesses has transformed into a significant project that organizers believe will become self-sustaining and a long-lasting facility.

Courtesy of donation from Kenny Perkins and Margaret Ehrhardt the project is well on its way to fruition.

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After plans of building a home on the North Shore in Grand Marais fell through, Perkins and Ehrhardt were left with 40,000 pounds of precut timber waiting to be put together. Ehrhardt got in contact with Chris Chalmers, director of community education in Albert Lea, because she heard community ed was looking for a new place to store its canoes, kayaks and paddle boards.

Perkins remembers the former Brookside building fondly and wanted to help keep the building active by donating the timber for an environmental learning house.

“I always liked Brookside,” Perkins said. “I had the most fun there.”

Perkins built a full-size boat, in his ninth-grade shop class at Brookside.

Now he’s helping build the facility. Perkins has spent the past few weeks working Monday through Friday on the timber, sanding it and preparing it for installation. The project has rejuvenated him and further sprouted an interest in making timber framing a permanent career.

“I felt like I was alive again once I got out here,” Perkins said.

Community ed is helping build the house and will donate the building to the city upon its completion. Perkins and Chalmers believe it can be done by late September or early October.

Perkins got interested in timber framing and took a class at the North House Folk School in Grand Marais a few years ago and this is his first foray into a project since attending the school.

The structure will be 40×48 and Perkins is working on adjusting the timbers now at a space Larson’s Construction has allowed Perkins to use for the project.

Several other entities have lent support, including the Albert Lea Lakes Foundation, Freeborn County Community Foundation and Maple Island Park Association.

The building will face the channel and be located near the boat landing. Materials are still needed for a roof, walls and concrete.

“We really think it can be a regional attraction,” Chalmers said.

The facility will decrease the cost of transporting the kayaks and canoes from the shed behind Brookside where they are now housed.

Scott A. Hanna is the director of the Silent Waters program, which hosts events for people interested in canoeing and kayaking.

Hanna also hosts open events on Thursday nights from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Brookside boat launch for $10 per person.

The interest in kayaking and canoeing has increased in the past two years as Hanna and Chalmers have worked to replace an outdated fleet of canoes, added kayaks and standup paddleboards in the hope that it can provide access to the lake for everyone. Fourteen kayaks were purchased last year, as well as new lifejackets.

Using the canoes and kayaks can be a good introduction to an outdoor activity for children and building outdoor hobbies early in a child’s life is an important for Hanna and Chalmers.

“Now hopefully it can make an impression on other kids’ lives,” Chalmers said.

The environmental center has plans for a public restroom in addition to housing the kayaks and canoes.

Hanna hosts four kayak events and four canoe events a month at the landing now and gives every fifth grade student in Albert Lea an opportunity to experience canoeing and kayaking during the spring. A total of 406 students come through the landing in just two weeks, Hanna said.

“We’re trying to bring unique things to our community that are going to benefit everyone,” Hanna said.

The project also fits into the larger objective of improving the quality of the lakes in Albert Lea and the access to the lakes.

“We want these to all be self-sustainable,” Hanna said. “Some would call it a legacy.”