Touch of Nature staffers provide free paddling in the name of community


Steve Gariepy, the event organizer for the first two Breaking the Surface paddle events, descends the steps of a shed Tuesday, September 29, 2015, near the beach at Touch of Nature Environmental Center in Makanda. He said he enjoys taking the 34-foot Voyageur canoe on the lake because it has room for many different types of people. He said everyone in the boat has to work together to paddle it. “Something I’m always working toward is getting humans to work together and looking beyond their differences to try to make this world a better place,” he said. “There’s a little bit of kumbaya in everything I do.” ( file photo)

By Marissa Novel, @MarissaNovelDE

Not all students and community members are aware of the 3,100 acres of university property less than 10 miles from campus. 

Touch of Nature Environmental Center serves as an outdoor laboratory for students, a venue for weddings and special occasions, and a retreat space for people of all ages.

Wrapping around the edges of Little Grassy Lake on its furthest west side, it is also a place of interest for those who would like to fit a free and informative afternoon into their weekend schedules.


Touch of Nature will host Breaking the Surface, their third biannual paddle event, from 1 to 6:30 p.m Saturday. 

The entirely volunteer-led event will feature live music, food for cash purchase, informative nature hikes, as well as instruction and access to about 70 boats including canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddle boards. 

Among the vessels will also be the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ 28-person Voyageur canoe, which was temporarily donated for the event.

Breaking the Surface is the brainchild of Steve Gariepy, a program coordinator at Touch of Nature. He said about 60 and 120 people gathered at the first two events, respectively, most of whom were international students and families.

He said it seemed many attendees had never paddled before. But, after getting into the 34-foot canoe, they began taking out the smaller paddle boats.

“I think it helped get them comfortable, but they were having a blast,” he said. “They were taking selfies and Facebooking and everything while they were still in the boat.”

Vicki Lang, a therapeutic recreation specialist for Touch of Nature, said being in the outdoors provides a calming and adventurous experience, which is always unique to the individual.

She said kayaks are especially useful for connecting to nature.

“You’re sitting so low in the water, so you almost feel like you belong and you are part of this experience,” Lang said.

Stephanie Jaros, this year’s event organizer, was a volunteer at the previous events. 

“As a kid I had no idea [Touch of Nature] even existed,” she said.

A Makanda native and graduate of Carbondale Community High School, Jaros said she hopes to bridge the gap between Touch of Nature’s programs and the community.

“It’s crazy that there people who have lived here for years who don’t know that you can come here and paddle every thursday,” she said.

Marissa Novel can be reached at [email protected]