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Meeting “the Hammer”

We sit now in a picnic shelter at Hok Si La Park, on an old river terrace overlooking Lake Pepin.  The air is thick with moisture (described as “like trying to breathe in chocolate cake”) and the rain has been heavy.  We’re looking forward to the passage of this cold front, and to having the winds switch to the north as we will take on the rest of Lake Pepin tomorrow.  We made it through our initial 4-day push to get here, covering 70 miles, with headwinds, heat, no rest days.  But the reward is views like this:

Sunrise over Lake Pepin.

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I have been impressed with how everyone has pushed through, kept a positive attitude as we get used to the rigors of the trip. If you want to see all their smiling faces, and get to know the crew a bit more, we now have their profiles posted on the River Semester site.  This morning we had 4 1/2 hours of class, covering sustainability, grassroots environmental organizing, and the debates over privatization and the commons, and students have had to push through on the academic front as well. Thorpe has been working hard at getting all the water quality testing equipment up and running, and we’re working out the kinks with all the electronic gear. There is so much to learn and adjust to on this trip, but we are already settling into a rhythm, figuring out how to balance the various kinds of work and study involved in this combination of college and expedition.

We have been meeting with some amazing folks along the way already, some planned and some chance encounters, such as our conversation with Gary “Hammer” Holmgren, who has a small house on Spring Lake near Wappinger’s Falls. He regaled us with stories of his exploits in the boxing ring (27 bouts, 22 wins and 12 KO’s!), scuba diving, firefighting, attending Princess Diana’s wedding, and living on the banks of the river. He was a great expert on local history and shared some of that with us as well. Our resident reporter Izzie interviewed him, and is working on turning that into our first podcast.

Izzy interviewing "The Hammer"

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While paddling out of South St. Paul we were accosted by a lone paddler heading upstream, who, in a prophetic voice, called out “Here is my advice:  You cannot change the passage of time, but you can change how you move through it!”  Hard to argue with, we thought.  It turned out he was the uncle of one of our students and that he is currently camped out on one of the islands on the Mississippi, working on a book.  He was paddling back to the nearest drug store because “the river had swallowed his glasses.”

On a somewhat less esoteric level we met at the St. James Hotel in Red Wing, with Dan McGuinness and Mike McKay, two long-time river advocates. Dan was the one who first got me out on the Mississippi, during the Audubon Society’s River Trip back in 2001. People (and press) are showing up, taking pictures, asking us about our experiences, as we have shared with them our adventures so far. The trip then becomes a great way to connect with people, providing ample opportunities for conversation.

I’m excited that we’ve already got the sonar rig up and running, mapping the bottom of the river. It seems an odd juxtaposition of new and old to have this GPS and sonar strapped to the gunwale of a cedar-strip canoe.

The sonar rig we are using to map the bottom of the river with Prof. Heine at Augustana (Rock island)

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We’ve taken light readings, used the solar panels to charge our batteries, and students have been working on the laptops around the campfire (as well as singing a few songs.) And Noah Cameron has started using the hydrophone to record the sounds underwater as we paddle. The first of those is now up on our SoundCloud account, and you can check it out here.  Our student documentarian has been busy filming our exploits (often to the consternation of those paddling in his canoe–“enough photos already! time to get back to the paddling . . .”), but he has been doing great work.  His video summary of the first week, complete with soundtrack, is here:

At Prairie Island we met with Gabe, the Director of the community’s conservation and environmental efforts. He and his team were out planting wild rice in the backwaters off the island, trying to reestablish this important staple crop. This year they’ve had good success, since there has been relatively little flooding. The students left with a few grains of wild rice to plant along the river as we go, small signs of hope about the ongoing return of the river.