Teamwork, Learning and Fun: Students Bond Over Kayak Adventure

On a recent morning a group of Mount Madonna School (MMS) teachers, students and parent chaperones gathered in Moss Landing near the mouth of the Elkhorn Slough. Following a brief orientation, the group of seniors, third and fourth graders donned life jackets and paired off to explore – from the vantage point of sturdy kayaks – as they paddled from the slough mouth up into its interior. This annual excursion was led by Kim Powell of the Santa Cruz-based Blue Water Ventures, a guide for several outdoor explorations that are part of the MMS program.

“The opportunity to spend time learning about the biologically rich and critically endangered slough habitat, all the while having a great adventure together with ‘buddies’ was educational and fun!” commented Nicole Silva, high school science teacher.

“I remember how much it meant to me when I was that young and had a big buddy to look up to,” shared senior Zachary Clark. “To see the next generation of kids growing up, hopefully wanting to pursue careers in ocean exploration and conservation (as I do), and seeing how invested and enraptured my little buddy was with the information we learned really gives me hope. It’s also just really nice to have a relaxed paddle around, seeing different wildlife and connecting with the younger kids.”

“One special thing we saw while kayaking was the sea jelly,” shared third grader Byrd Mallet. “The jelly went right under our kayak. The jelly was white with long red tentacles and its top was yellow. It was almost as big as my desk! I also really liked net fishing. We caught a sardine or smelt. We let them go after we looked at them.”

Silva, who participated in this trip for the past three years, said she’s noticed that students often start the day with a bit of nervousness. Older students wonder if their little buddies will be able to paddle the kayak, if they will listen to them and have fun, and what it will be like to be responsible for another little human being on the water. The little buddies, in turn, are usually nervous about getting into the water (for some, it is the first time they have kayaked), and wonder if their big buddy will like them, take care of them, and have fun with them.

“I was surprised to see the smile on my buddy’s face when he first saw me,” commented senior Brigg Busenhart, “and this confirmed that I was in for a day of fun. As we paddled strongly through currents we connected as a team – gliding over a sea lion, hitting each buoy, and winning the paddling race – my buddy Lucas and I truly enjoyed each other’s company! What most surprised me was how we both began the day so relaxed, with no awkward first few minutes. Instead of the typical ‘big buddy trying to make the little buddy have fun,’ it was having fun and becoming a team together.”

Fourth grader Jaxson Alciati shared a kayak with his father. He enjoyed the array of active wildlife, nibbling on samples of edible marine plants offered by their guide, and the refreshing change of pace.

“I loved kayaking with my dad,” said Alciati. “I put my hand over the boat to feel the water. I am amazed that kayaks float so well and I loved how relaxing it was to paddle over the water.”

Before launching their kayaks, the group assembled in a large circle and took turns saying what each person was looking forward to. Senior Emily Villareal said her buddy had a surprising response.

“Most kids said sea otters or seals, but my buddy said all she was looking forward to was going home,” said Villareal. “I felt kind of bad that she had to be here when she didn’t want to, but by the end of the trip I think she’d had at least a little bit of fun. Whenever the guide would ask a question my buddy would volunteer really thoughtful answers, and she’d usually be right, too. It reminded me of when I was her age. At that time I had a senior big buddy and I still remember going on hikes and talking with her, and I’m really glad that this is a program our school still does.”

“I expected to get cold and seasick,” shared classmate Jordan Willis. “Before, these two ailments had ambushed me in every kayak I set foot into. This time, however, by some miracle, I had fun. It might have been the cool water, or the fact that I had a really cool little buddy who I found out was actually my neighbor! Maybe it was the combination of both of these things, but paddling our way through that olive-colored water, waving at seals…actually turned out to be an enjoyable experience. I consider this a success!”

“It was difficult trying to get the younger kids to quit throwing stinky seaweed at each other while also steering and powering the kayak,” noted senior Phoebe Grant. “I have a new appreciation for parents, because it’s difficult to reprimand and be fun at the same time. Overall, though, I thoroughly enjoyed being able to take a break from the stress of college applications and senior year and just connect with our carefree elementary buddies.”

Fourth grade teacher Nick Cabassa said one of the biggest take-aways from this learning adventure was the opportunity to practice teamwork and to build relationships.

“The teamwork aspect was huge; students worked together to make an ‘island’ with their kayaks, to maintain a safe distance from the numerous sea lions, seals and otters, to practice paddling techniques and to have fun,” he said. “I appreciated the chance to bond with some of the older students that I didn’t really know, and for our younger and high school students to share stories and get to know each other better.”

“I have two buddies, Cora and Eden,” shared senior Gracie Howley. “Eden and I really bonded during the bus ride to the slough, talking about volleyball and the kids in our classes. She is the only girl in her class who plays volleyball. I told her to bring her the girls in her class to one of the high school varsity games so she could support us and get the rest of the girls hooked on volleyball! We are both very excited about this and whichever game she decides to go to she is going to see me playing my hardest!”

“Me and Gracie both started at MMS in kindergarten,” added fourth grader Eden Fisher. “I loved kayaking with our big buddies and I’m so excited to do it again when I’m in twelfth grade!”

From the array of responses, it seems clear that the beyond the explicit curriculum of learning and teaching each other about the flora and fauna, this trip provides a fantastic bonding experience.

“I’ve been kayaking a couple of times before, however this time was a different experience,” shared senior Cyrus Kamkar. “I had the opportunity to get to know a really nice kid. He is new to the school, and this is his first year. I remember when I was new, and we all looked up to the big kids. I could only imagine how big of a deal it would have been if I got to go kayaking with my big buddy at that age.”

“My favorite thing about kayaking was being with my big buddy Will” shared fourth grader Gabriel Yellowhorse-Ruiz. “I loved that he let me ‘call off’ the paddle – ‘right, left, right, left’! And he taught me how to make my strokes with the paddle even.”

This field trip is the perfect combination of trust building, learning, community involvement (learning about the ways the slough and its surrounding habitat are impacted by humans) and healthy physical activity.

“The opportunity for the senior buddies to enjoy nature like little kids again, partaking in ‘kelp wars,’ kayak races, and secretly holding on to other kayaks without getting caught provides for meaningful connections,” noted Silva. “Both buddies end the day happy and tired. The conversations on the bus ride back have changed from what might the day hold for them, to the natural conversations that happen between friends who have bonded. We all end the day with smiles and big hugs.”

“To me, the overall theme for this trip was learning,” commented senior Sienna Clifton. “One of the most memorable moments for me was when our group caught fish with a large net, and seeing our little buddies running after the fish; they were just so excited to be in the moment! My little buddy Harmony was outgoing and rushed around with excitement in her eyes, which made me excited and happy to be there. It was fun to connect with the younger kids who I do not get to see on a daily basis. The opportunity to spend the time with my class and our younger little buddies reminded me of the importance of community.”


Contact: Leigh Ann Clifton, Director of Marketing & Communications,

Nestled among the redwoods on 355 mountaintop acres, Mount Madonna is a safe and nurturing college-preparatory school that supports students in becoming caring, self-aware and articulate critical thinkers, who are prepared to meet challenges with perseverance, creativity and integrity. The CAIS and WASC accredited program emphasizes academic excellence, creative self-expression and positive character development. Located on Summit Road between Gilroy and Watsonville.