What I Learned from Paddling the Entire Mississippi River

By Anna Johnson

When my friends asked me to move from Washington, D.C., to Minneapolis to help start an environmental education nonprofit, I said yes. When my friend, turned coworker, proposed that we paddle the length of the Mississippi River as an organization, I did not hesitate. After the Wild River Academy’s first summer of leading students on canoe trips on rivers near the Twin Cities, paddling the entire Big Muddy seemed like a great way to move out of the student canoe trip season, and forward into the rest of the year.

When we first decided to pursue this adventure, we did not know exactly what we hoped to get out of it. What we did know was that the 2,300-mile Mississippi River was the perfect embodiment of two major themes of our student canoe trips: that our interconnectedness to the land and river occurs in more ways than we can truly understand, and that our well-being as a society is tied up in the health of the river. That seemed like a good place to start.

Staying in line with our mission of experiential education at Wild River Academy, we decided to share our adventure down the Mississippi River in several ways: by exploring how people we encountered related to the river through filmed interviews; allowing classrooms across the country to follow our trip online and utilize a K-12 river-focused curriculum; and blogging and posting photos and videos as we traveled.

After months of planning, our group of 11 launched on Bemidji Lake, headed for New Orleans. As on any great adventure, we started each day on the Mississippi River not knowing who or what we might encounter. On day one we met a British man who was solo-paddling the river to raise money for a children’s hospital. On day two, we crash-landed our canoes on the rocky shore of Lake Winnibigoshish after a violently windy crossing nearly did us in. On day 13, we met a gentleman for whom a goose had mistaken as its mate, and every morning they would sit quietly together, he drinking coffee, both of them gazing at the river. On day 52, we paddled through St. Louis, pulling over to marvel at the Arch. And on a cold, rainy day 70 we arrived in New Orleans. We locked through the locks, met with the Army Corps of Engineers, slept on a decommissioned dredging boat-turned-museum, and stayed in an allegedly haunted mansion in Mark Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, Missouri. We paddled, observed, reflected and paddled.

A canoe on the shore of the Mississippi River.
A familiar experience of sharing the river with barge traffic on the river. Luckily for paddlers, barges are hard to miss. (Image courtesy Paddle Forward.)

What became clear from the outset was that no matter what happened, each day was saturated with opportunities to learn. Everyone we encountered had a relationship to the river. Every barge captain we talked to over marine radio was a piece in a global puzzle, connecting a farm in southwestern Minnesota to the global economy. Recognizing that each opportunity to learn was also an opportunity to share, we stopped and engaged with those we encountered whenever we could. We gathered hundreds of hours of footage of interviews, visited classrooms and blogged and posted photos as we were able to during our breaks from our eight-to-10 hour paddling days.

Based on the rich learning opportunities that paddling the Mississippi created, we decided to pursue this type of trip, which we call Paddle Forward, in future years by paddling tributaries of the Mississippi. We opened up the experience to interested students and young people, and built time into the trips to more intentionally engage with communities along the route. In 2014, Paddle Forward completed the Illinois River — from Chicago, Illinois, to Alton, Missouri. In 2015, a crew paddled the Minnesota River, from Big Stone Lake to the Twin Cities.

Though each river was different, certain themes emerged in our footage. In 2015, the MWMO awarded a Stewardship Fund Grant to Paddle Forward to create educational videos using footage from all three trips. There will be a debut event at the MWMO’s Stormwater Park and Learning Center tomorrow — Wednesday, April 27, 2016, at 6 p.m. — to show these videos and answer questions about Paddle Forward. These videos capture a small slice of the experience of the paddling these routes. We hope that by helping people to more fully understand the multitude of ways that rivers are utilized by and affect our society through these videos, they will be inspired to invest in protecting their own watershed, in the way the trips have inspired us paddlers to do so.

Video Release Party

All images courtesy Paddle Forward.

*Editor’s note: Anna Johnson is a former MWMO intern. She left the MWMO in June 2016.

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