Canoeing Is a Way of Life for This Family

Miles family canoeing

The Miles Family on one of their many canoe trips together

The best way to keep canoeing alive is to pass the love of canoeing on to the next generation. Jody and Bill Miles have been actively passing on this love to their own boys, Willow and Granite, and thousands of other school children since 1999.

Bill and Jody co-founded and co-run Earth’s Classroom, an experiential education non-profit in east-central Missouri. We were able to meet Jody via video chat and find out more about them:

BB: Tell us about your own paddling background.

JODY: My passion for paddling definitely stems from my parents. Earth’s Classroom is actually on my family farm. A lot of our vacation time was spent paddling and camping in the Ozarks growing up. I craved it! I couldn’t pass up a summer without living out of the canoe multiple days on those rivers, the Ozark National Scenic Riverways.

Bill was very, very active in Boy Scouts and is an Eagle Scout. There was no outdoor scene for him in southern Arkansas where he grew up. Luckily, he had a troop leader who was very active. At the age of 14 he did his first 100-mile canoe trip in Canada, at the Northern Frontier Post for Boy Scouts. He’s now an ACA L4 canoe instructor, and has also taught whitewater kayaking.

bending branches paddles

We met in the early-mid 90s at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin. We both got the same degree: Natural History/Outdoor Education. We have a very strong philosophy about learning and teaching what we’re paddling and adventuring among. It’s never just about the adventure. It’s about understanding geology, dendrology, botony, etc. and their interrelationships as we’re paddling on a 3-day ecology canoe trip.

We founded Earth’s Classroom in 1999. We’re right at 67,000 participants since we started, doing either day-long outdoor education or multi-day. Most of them are from schools, up through the university level. We also work with civic organizations like the Scouts, and offer programs to the general public once or twice a month.

Bill and I share a passion of the traditional canoe trip. We love the art of canoeing. With our Ozark streams here it’s wonderful thing to pack the canoes full for days and just go.

BB: How did you raise your sons to be canoe lovers, too?

JODY: We started both boys canoeing at 10 months old, as soon as they could stand nice and sturdy. Because it was our passion and we knew it would be a “forced passion” for them (laughs), we kept track—in their baby books—of every date, which river and how many miles they’ve traveled by canoe…starting at 10 months old.

We decided that at the age of 15 we’d stop keeping track of their river miles and they would have “come of age.” We’d gift them with a canoe paddle that we really appreciated. We did this for Willow this past year.

We bought him a Bending Branches Viper paddle, our favorite paddle. I added up all those miles for the different rivers he’d been on since he was 10 months old. And my mom, who’s an amazing artist, painted those miles on the paddle.

willow miles and his custom viper canoe paddle

Willow with his custom Viper canoe paddle

The boys love canoeing! Granite (they’re younger son, now 12) will say, “I don’t see the 5-day canoe trip on our schedule, Mom! When’s it going to happen?”

Granite is the canoer/fisherman while Willow is the canoeing, snorkeling, swimming guy. He’s in and out of the canoe, swimming, popping up out of the water with crayfish and different creatures in his hands.

At the age of 13, Willow was given an Outdoor Educator Assistant position by our Board of Directors. So he started assisting us to lead many of the canoe trips through Earth’s Classroom.

BB: Why the Viper Canoe Paddle?

JODY: The only time I ever remember my husband sending in a testimony was to Bending Branches. It was after we raced in the Missouri River 340 Race (MR340). It’s a non-stop paddling race across the state of Missouri on the Missouri River, 340 miles. It’s intense! We did it in 2013 and got 3rd place in our class! We did it in a Wenonah  Jensen canoe with the Bending Branches Viper paddles.

Even on Day 1 there were people on the shoreline shaking and getting their hands taped up, raw and blistered because of paddling 100 miles. We averaged 115 miles a day, 3 days in a row and didn’t even get a hot spot on our hands. So Bill sent in a testimony to Branches about that.

jody & bill miles competing in the MR340 canoe race

Jody & Bill competed in Missouri's MR340 in 2013

There’s something about a wooden paddle that’s warm, flexible, giving—it’s just easy on your body. It’ll bend and flex and move with you. We love doing our pulls and draws and feathering, and it feels like an art skill. The Viper’s ergonomic shape really saved us doing that kind of distance. It’s easy on the body—the ergonomics, the flex of the wood, the very large face that pushes a lot of water.

BB: What does your canoeing future look like for your family and organization?

JODY: Since covid, Earth’s Classroom has taken an enormous hit. We depend so much on school field trips with the schools, and since last March—no field trips. By the end of April we will have lost 6,000 participants.

Our summer programs—the Family and Public Programs—those were filled up with a waiting list last summer. Scout groups and different civic organizations hire us. But schools aren’t allowing field trips right now due to covid.

Bill has had to take on another job because of that, but luckily he’s very skilled. EC also got supported through the CARES Act, so that was huge for us. But we’ve definitely had to re-direct our energies. We are an outdoor experiential learning center, so it’s really hard for us to move to a Zoom platform! We’ve done some Zoom things for local high schools, but it’s just not the same.

We have a couple schools signed up this spring, but that’s 200 students compared to 2,000 students in a “normal” year.

willow miles canoeing

Willow on a winter paddle

Bill and I would be beyond honored to have any Bending Branch fans join us on the Earth's Classroom educational paddle adventures we are leading this summer and fall (2021):

We are hired as the Lead Educators and On-Water Directors. Come adventure with us!!!

Learn more about Earth’s Classroom on their website and Facebook page. All photos courtesy of Jody Miles.

Do you questions about choosing a canoe paddle? Contact our friendly Customer Service team today: 715-755-3405 • [email protected]

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