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Braille Institute Teens Get in Touch With the Bay


NEWPORT BEACH — Zoila Najera's introduction to the great blue heron, a large, crane-like bird that inhabits California marshes, was a revealing one.

Her hands felt the long, pointed beak and glided along the gracefully curved neck of a stuffed specimen standing almost three feet high. Exclamations of unconcealed surprise greeted each new discovery: "Those are his legs?" she asked, feeling the long, black stilts the bird walks on. "I didn't think a bird could grow this much."

Zoila was one of 11 visually impaired teens from the Anaheim-based Braille Institute who journeyed to Newport Dunes on Tuesday for a kayak tour of the marshy reaches of Upper Newport Bay. Before taking to the water, the 15-year-old Anaheim High School student and her compatriots were getting a chance to feel some of the wetlands inhabitants they might encounter--by sound if not by sight--during the tour.

This was the first time kayaking for these Braille Institute participants, but other outdoor adventures are almost commonplace for students enrolled in the institute's summer youth program. Earlier this month, some of the kids went backpacking in the mountains near Mt. Baldy. Many take weekly self-defense classes; other excursions this summer and throughout the year have included rock-climbing at Joshua Tree, sailing and skiing.

"These are all confidence-building activities," said Julie Juliusson, communications coordinator for the institute.

Brian Nelson, assistant youth coordinator for the institute, said that while the activities are designed to be fun, they also teach independence and self-sufficiency. On the backpacking trek, for example, participants cooked their own food and set up their own tents.

"We take them to do things they wouldn't normally do," Nelson said, on activities that "are going to help their orientation and mobility."

Backpacking, Nelson said, "was a great experience because it turned out to be a test of will. . . . We're exposing them, you could say, to the realities of life."

Scott Blanks said that reality on the backpacking trip was, well, hot and dirty. "It was fun, though," said the 15-year-old Anaheim High School student from Los Alamitos. "We hiked up the mountain, got sweaty and ate bad food."

Scott has been taking part in the institute's summer program since he was 5 years old. "It's just nice to have a chance to do things I wouldn't normally get to do," he explained.

"I like it because you learn things and you're with your friends," said Estee Lapire, 15, of Santa Ana. She attends self-defense classes every Thursday, and recently took part in a sports car rally in Los Angeles. "I got to drive with a movie star from 'General Hospital,' " the Saddleback High School student said.

Wednesday's tour was hosted by the Newport Dunes Resort, which provided the kayaks and a barbecue lunch, and led by John Scholl of the state Department of Fish and Game. Although some of the youngsters expressed concerns before the tour about tipping over in the two-person kayaks (each student was paired with an institute staff member or volunteer), once they got in the water, all trepidation melted away, as they gleefully rammed and splashed each other.

The tour, more than an hour in length and entailing about a mile of paddling, included lessons on the wildlife of the bay, as well as a song about the bay's natural cycles. The youngsters were accompanied by representatives of several newspapers and one local TV station, with reporters in the kayaks, photographers following in an electric boat.

At the edge of the marsh itself, where the cordgrass meets the water, participants were invited to dig their hands into the muck and feel for the critters that live in the mud. Some declined, but others pulled out mussels and horn snails. One girl felt the sea lettuce that grows in the water near the marsh edge: "It feels like plastic, like a plastic sandwich bag."

The paddle back, against a stiff breeze on the clear afternoon, turned into an occasion for some lighthearted racing, a bit of complaining about sore shoulders, and more splashing. When the kayaks touched back on the sandy beach, some headed straight for lunch--hot dogs, hamburgers, chips, fruit and much-needed lemonade.

Some, however, stayed in the water for some high-spirited horseplay and hard-fought water battles. Zoila allowed that the kayaking had been fun, but she had to confess: "I like water splashing better."

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