Paddle forward: Mississippi River

Paddle group

Last fall, 10 other people and I paddled more than 2,000 miles in canoes. Our trip was called Paddle Forward, and we were on a mission to paddle the length of the Mississippi River. I’ve been paddling for years but mostly in wilderness areas such as the Boundary Waters. While I love these places and enjoy the quiet time alone in nature, recreating on local waterways brings a new appreciation to the place you live.

I spent the majority of college learning about environmental issues surrounding climate change, such as energy usage, water depletion, resource extraction and decreases in biodiversity. Alone, secluded in serene wilderness, you are less likely to think about difficult climate issues. However, while paddling a river that more than 50 cities depend on for daily water supply, you can’t escape noticing the effects humans have on the fourth largest watershed in the world.

I became interested in sustainability issues after I took an off-campus course from HECUA that opened my eyes to the many environmental challenges we face today. After completing the HECUA course, I immediately signed up for the sustainability studies minor, housed at the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment, to dive even deeper into the complexity of these issues. The minor furthered my knowledge on sustainability topics and provided the necessary tools to think critically about complex environmental systems. I also thrived in the experiential learning environment provided by the minor. I graduated in 2012 from the College of Food Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences with a B.S. in environmental science and policy management.

Big ShipsPaddle Forward was part of a pilot program for Wild River Academy, a Twin Cities non-profit dedicated to watershed education. The eleven of us in five 15 to 16 foot canoes accomplished three goals. First, we completed the paddle from Bemidji, Minnesota (we couldn’t start at the headwaters because of low water) to New Orleans, Louisiana. Second, while paddling we connected with organizations, individuals, and community members to learn about how they relate to the river and filmed these conversations to be used in a documentary about our experience. Finally, using an interactive website, we shared these stories with over 40 K-12 schools across the country, engaging them in adventure learning educational programming. The result was 70 days of intense interactions with everything Mississippi River.

Paddling the river, I experienced the diversity of industry, people, species and communities that rely on the watershed. I felt how warm the water feels after paddling past a nuclear plant, saw the runoff from pipes connecting drain tiles flowing into the river, and heard stories from people struggling to maintain livelihoods in dying river towns. I also saw pure kindness in strangers who displayed radical hospitality to 11 smelly river rats, encountered countless numbers of people working to ensure the river continues to be integrated in their community, and wildlife thriving due to conservation efforts. I ultimately came to appreciate the complexity of the great Mississippi watershed and the potential to share its importance with others.

It wasn’t until we almost reached Baton Rouge that I truly understood the significance of the waterway I was paddling. We rounded a corner and there it was: the last bridge before the first major port on the Mississippi River. After we passed under the bridge, there were huge ocean-going ships docked and anchored on the river. They made barge tows look like bathtub toys and our fleet of small canoes look like ants on a sidewalk. I could see them being loaded and unloaded with oil, sand, natural gas, corn, soybeans and other commodities to be delivered around the world. I paddled passed a ship and read on the side that its home port was in China. Later, I passed another boat from Russia. Some ships’ captains had southern accents so thick we couldn’t really understand them. It was at this moment that I understood the power of the Mississippi River: It connects me, I mean us, everyone, to the rest of the world. It deserves for us to respect and appreciate its utility and beauty.

Before & AfterCurrently, the Wild River Academy Team (myself included) manages and operates two programs. The first is a multiday summer educational program of canoe trips for junior high and high school students. The second is Paddle Forward. Each year we will pick a different river to explore in the Mississippi River watershed and complete a similar adventure learning program, connecting K-12 classrooms to our paddle. This fall we will start at the headwaters of the Chicago River and end our trip at the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers.

Every time I’m near the Mississippi River, my heart will skip a beat or a tear will roll down my face as I think about the trip. I sometimes look around at the people walking by and keep myself from yelling, “do you know how incredible this river is?”  Instead, I just keep moving with a big bright smile on my face and reflect about my experience: the people I met, the conversations I had in the boats with the other paddlers, the students who followed our blog, and the restorative power of my paddle dipping into the water and pulling me gently forward down the Mississippi River.

Elizabeth Just is a teaching assistant for the sustainability studies minor capstone course at the University of Minnesota and the Paddle Forward program coordinator. She loves (almost) everything outdoors and will blow off all commitments to throw a Frisbee with friends.

Photos courtesy of Elizabeth Just. Top to bottom: starting off in Bemidji; paddling passed oceangoing vessels in Lousiana; the author before and after.