Black and White

Our journey has been defined by the serpentine path of the Mississippi as it carves its way through the middle of the country. As a feature of our geography, it has facilitated a particular path through the world.  In our canoes, we stick to the main channel, and the charts or the river tell us how to navigate and avoid the rocks and submerged stumps.  But our trip has also been through a human landscape–the chain of communities, towns, and social networks through which we have moved as we head toward the sea.  It is a rich and varied set of communities, and I noted earlier some aspects of “river culture”–the sense of generosity, a certain wildness, and shared connection to the rhythms and flows of the river.  But as our trip winds down, one of the most salient aspects of this human geography has been its racial segregation.  In exploring “democracy in America” today, we were repeatedly struck by the fact that we do not live in a post-racial society.  This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but nonetheless, spending 100 days slowly meandering the breadth of the lower forty-eight has certainly affirmed the ongoing importance of race (and class and gender) as socially significant categories. This manifested in various ways throughout our trip.

To begin with our group itself is comprised of people descended from immigrants from England and Germany, Scandinavia, Italy, and the like. I had originally hoped to have a group of students who would reflect the diversity of Augsburg and the Twin Cities, and there was interest from a wide range of students on campus.  But in the end, for a trip of this nature (long, expensive, camping), those that ended up being able to go were white.  We come from families that had taken us camping, or at least traveled; our families have the financial means; we have the support networks needed to be on the road for four months; and we saw this as an exciting and fun way to get a college education.  For any of the students of color who were at least slightly interested, one or the other of these conditions were not met.

This may have been slightly disappointing, a missed opportunity.  Diversity in the classroom and on campus enriches everyone’s experiences so much, and I really wanted to create an opportunity that would be accessible to anyone interested in going.  But there was a more troubling aspect of the trip–with rare exception our group moved through a white world, meaning that almost all our substantive interactions have been with people of European descent.  As water seeks the path of least resistance as it moves towards the sea, our path of least resistance through the human landscape has been through those networks of people with whom we shared most ties and affinity.  In setting up the trip, trying to contact people to meet with, and partner organizations, my list of connections was predominantly white (and male, but that’s another story).  Not that I sought any of this, but that was who ended up on my list.  Any time I asked someone who we should meet with, or looked online for a local expert, I found whites.  In the boats on the river (whether through-paddlers, towboat crews, or pleasure boaters) it was whites; in the houses and towns along the river it was whites.  Here and there we saw some people of color:  Latino farm workers or  an occasional African-American on the shore fishing.  When I tried to set up meetings or visits in communities of color–in Ferguson or at the Prairie Island Reservation–I couldn’t find anyone to contact, or the people I tried to contact didn’t reply.  The lead I had for visiting Ferguson was a white photojournalist who had shot the photos during the protests and riots there.  In the Lower Ninth Ward, our bike tour guide did live in the neighborhood, but he was white and a recent transplant to the area.

We live in a society and country in which there are parallel worlds separated by invisible walls; we paddle a white river, and somewhere on the other side of an invisible partition are different rivers.  There are people of all ethnicities and countries of origin along the river, and that diversity is increasing, but it is as if they move in different universes.  In many cases, as Michelle Alexander has pointed out so powerfully in her The New Jim Crow, the walls (and bars) are very real.  But part of the “new Jim Crow” is spacial as well. In other cases the separation is created by the lack of social interconnections between he different races and ethnicities that could be described, in contrast with institutional racism, as “spacial racism.”  As the “war on drugs” becomes a “race-neutral” to imprison thousands of young black men, the higher levels of mobility on the part of the wealthy, becomes a “race neutral” was to maintain a highly segregated society.  There was been plenty said about this in terms of housing patterns and school segregation, but it is always another thing to experience it so powerfully first hand, as we traversed the country from near the Canadian border, all the way to the sea.  Regardless of intentionality, our lived spaces and social networks remain racially segregated (with some exceptions that I’ll discuss further below).  This was the second feature of our experience of race on the trip.  The third was a shift in the kinds of racial attitudes we encountered as we traveled south.

At various points along the way, we encountered examples of whites, who either had chosen to separate themselves from the diversity of the city, or expressed some openly prejudicial views.  The further south we got, the more extreme those views became.  There was, for instance, the mother who moved from New Orleans to small-town Minnesota, enamored of the Laura Ingalls Wilder stories and the pioneer mythos, and troubled by the violence and unrest she experienced in the south; she did not want to raise her children in New Orleans, and sought a context in which the mythic life of Ma and Pa Ingalls prevailed–even if it was mostly a myth.  The constant moving of the Ingalls family itself could be read as, in part, a very early example of white flight (whenever things got too crowded, Pa would want to move further out into the wilderness).  Here there was no overt expression of racial bias or prejudice, but the all-too-familiar act of spacial segregation.  Mobility has always been a powerful vehicle for racial and class-based segregation.  Those with the means have been able to leave; those without are stuck.  Our mobility along the river was a manifestation of our white privilege as well.  All along the river we noticed the spacial segregation in terms of socio-economic status.  On the high ground were always the nicest houses (often palatial mansions), and the closer you got to the mud and flooding of the river, the more marginal the housing.  This was true from the Twin Cities all the way to New Orleans and out into the disappearing bayou country.

A little further south, the manifestations of prejudice became more overt.  One evening, I hung out at a bar at a hotel in Alton, Illinois.  Bars are often a good place to get a feel for a place, with alcohol often thinning the veneer of social proprieties.  There was a group of about a dozen white guys in their 60s, laughing raucously and talking in loud voices about golf, strip clubs, homes in Flagstaff, fast cars, and referring to anyone who stingy as a “Jew” (and singing “Hava Negila” to emphasize the point.)  They were having the time of their lives, really yucking it up.  I was struck by the contrast between that groups’ realities and that of the African-American cook at the “custom-made omelettes” station at the hotel I saw the next morning. He seemed to bear the weight of endless hours of labor on his shoulders; labor that would not lead to fast cars, or houses in Flagstaff, or to raucous reunions with high school buddies.  These men moved in different worlds, worlds shaped by structures of opportunity and constraint that would lead their lives in very different directions.  The rules stacked in favor of those who “won the war,” so to speak; to the victor go the spoils–for them the hard work pays off; for those in that parallel, black, universe, the hard work much less often does.  Because unfortunately, to a large degree, the distribution of economic resources in a community is a zero-sum game.  The money accumulated by the few can only come from the many. (Yes, the economy can grow and the pie can become larger, but far more important is how that pie is divided up, and that division is still largely structured along racial lines.)  Robert Putnam’s recent work, Our Kids, focuses on the growing gap between rich and poor and the importance of education in decreasing that gap in opportunities.  But the correlation between race and SES is still so strong it seems almost quaint to pretend otherwise (although I can understand the political utility of his approach, making it palatable to a which wider swath of the polis).

In St. Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans, the major metropolitan areas, the picture changed abruptly.  No longer in the land of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the city was richly diverse.  Here, paralleling the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, the two worlds met.  Here we finally talked with people of color, but in almost all cases these were with staff, low-paid employees at places like the City Museum, taxi drivers, wait staff, or the musicians in the Big Easy.  In urban America–Chicago, St. Louis, New Orleans, New York–black and white mix, peacefully coexist, but also clash, as seen recently in the confrontation and riots following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the depressingly common examples of this kind of violence.  When we arrived in St. Louis and Memphis, I was struck by how many of the whites there expressed fear and concern about not going to certain parts of town.  Some of this is warranted, I suppose, and a certain level of prudence and common sense if always warranted.  But we didn’t have any problems, and I was struck by the palpable fear that certainly was part of what has helped maintain these walls of separation.  So much of American politics is driven by fear that, to my mind, just is not supported by the facts (see, for example, Corey Robin, Fear: the History of a Political Idea, or Frank Furedi’s The Politics of Fear).  Where the fear seems much more warranted is within the African-American communities, which have experienced domestic terrorism for decades, and for whom encounters with the police are fraught with very real risks.  Ta-Nehisi Coates recent Between the World and Me is a poetic and powerful account of that reality.

In the fairly posh neighborhood where I stayed in St. Louis, the owner of the B&B (who was, perhaps needless to say, white), made a point of talking about how he had successfully taken on crime in his neighborhood through a series of neighborhood policing measures and by seeking maximum sentences for any convictions.  Neighborhood residents would show up at trial to testify or just be a presence in the courtroom to provide greater pressure to apply harsher sentences.  This was referred to as a “Neighborhood ownership model” that consists of citizen patrols (eyes on the street), victim advocacy, a local police office, and stiffer penalties.  It reduced crime in the neighborhood, but it also helped reinforce the segregation of the city, and rather than get at the root causes of the crime, to my mind, would only help maintain the sense of alienation and economic desperation that feeds the decision to pursue a life of crime.  The owners of the B&B had worked very hard to fix up that old house, which was now packed full of old silver and china (one guessed that a good bit of it inherited), and they were now working on a second home in Arizona as well.  Crime was hurting business and driving down property values, and so the lines had to be drawn.  It was hard to blame him for his efforts, but the end result was again a society in which the whites got richer, and the blacks ended up in jail.  What would it take to be in a society in which, when I wanted to find a place to stay in St. Louis, I would look up the B&B’s and find one owned by an African-American who was fighting to keep his neighborhood safe from the white criminals?  Or better yet, of course, a society in which the opportunities were there for everyone, and thus the incentives to take to a “life of crime” were that much lower.

In St. Louis it felt like we had begun to enter “the South.” The language and demeanor, and demographics, began to shift as we entered territory in which slavery had once been the foundation of the economy.  By the time we reached Mississippi and heart of cotton country, this was very much the case.  In the hotel in Greenville, Mississippi (not long after the attacks in Paris), four white hunters in camo gear were talking in the lobby about the influx of Muslims into the U.S., and how they were quite certain Obama was getting ready to impose martial law.  In loud voices they seemed convinced that the nation’s first black President had clearly malevolent intentions and was working in cahoots with Muslim terrorists.

At the southernmost point of our journey, in Chauvin, Louisiana at a local bar, we encountered the usual warmth and hospitality we usually have in Bayou country, but also ran into a very drunk man, a self-proclaimed fighter, who bragged about being able to kill black people (referred to as “n—-s”) and that he would “probably get away with it.”  Being from Chauvin, I guess he could rightly be called a chauvinist. He was unbalanced and full of a kind of pent up energy that I guessed came from some deep pain or injury at some point along the line.  On some level I think he too was driven by fear.  There is certainly a lot of loss, even desperation, in that marginalized edge of the world.  There at the end of the line, as deep into the south as one could get, there sat racism and bigotry in its rawest form, and one could easily see a situation in which, if a black man had come into town he might have, like so many thousands before, ended up dead.  There is, of course, a great diversity of views, of tolerance, and open-mindedness in people we met in Mississippi and Louisiana, and plenty of racism throughout America.  But it was interesting that on our trip at least, the further south we got, the more openly people expressed racist views.

New Orleans is now considering taking down four statues to Confederate war heroes, including the towering monument to Robert E. Lee that sat just outside our hotel room on “Lee Circle.”  It is a heated debate in the city now, with a petition against that move having recently garnered 31,000 signatures.  When students from two Louisiana HBCU’s were in town last week (for the Bayou Bowl) they staged a rally in Jackson Square calling for the removal of the statues.  As with the controversy over the Confederate flag, feelings run strong on both sides.  But it is time to put those symbols of slavery and oppression into a museum (so we not forget), and not have them stand in public as expressions of our shared values.

All this has made me appreciate all the more the need to actively work to bridge these divides and gaps, find ways to make it easier to interact with people from different backgrounds, experiences, and points of view.  For future trips it will be a priority to work harder to reach out and make those connections.  We need people whose work and skills help us cross those divides–what we are calling now “intercultural competence.”  I so appreciated those people who played that role for us on the trip. When we did manage to break through these walls that tend to separate black and brown from white, we had some of our richest and most rewarding meetings.  Schools, like Augsburg University, that have succeeded in diversifying their student body are crucial to this process, and we need to continue to work on desegregation of schools, workplaces, and other public institutions.  And my hat is off to faculty who have made it a priority to reach across color lines and build bridges between North and South. As but one example, my good friend and colleague Jeff Kolnick, who teaches history at Southwest State U. (in Marshall, MN) has down amazing work with the Fannie Lou Hamer Institute in Jackson, MS.

Our firt bridge-builder we met was in Winona, MN, at the Dakota gathering there.  Lyle Rustad, a Vietnam Vet, runs the Diversity Foundation, whose mission is “Bridging the Cultural Gap.”  He went out of his way to bring a Dakota elder Emmett Eastman to our campsite to share his story with us.  It was a raw and unsettling story of historic and personal trauma, resilience, and ongoing struggle.  Visiting the Dakota gathering there and sharing a meal with our Dakota brothers and sisters felt like a little taste of the way things should always be.

With Augsburg’s President Paul Pribbenow, we did take our trip to Ferguson, MO, and visited the site where Michael Brown was shot and killed. But without any local contacts we felt very uncomfortable and out of place as the only white people there.

memorial

We were the outsiders, those with the means and privilege to be able to visit, and many of our students expressed discomfort with walking through that place.  But this made it real.  We were able to chat a little with some of the local residents at the burger place we went for lunch, and drove to the other side of town where the police station is as well.

In Clarksdale, Mississippi John Ruskey and the crew at the Quapaw Canoe Company have done great work as well in bringing together black and white in Mississippi and taking them out on the river (including us!).

greenville

In New Orleans, Nick of “The Confederacy of Cruisers,” took us on a bike tour of the Lower Ninth Ward, where we encountered a community of great resilience; a solid working class neighborhood with 70% owner-occupied homes prior to Katrina, the Lower Ninth is slowly but resolutely rebuilding.  We had a great meeting and conversation there with Mr. Lewis of the House of Dance and Feathers, a museum to the culture of the Mardi Gras Indians and Skulls and Bones Krewes.

On our 100th day of the expedition, thanks to the persistence of our own Hannah Arvold, and the help of Tracy Fredin of the Center for Global Environmental Education, we met with 4th and 6th graders at International School of Louisiana.  It was a beautifully diverse group of kids, at a school with a leaky roof, where our students talked about our trip and shared some of what they’ve learned (from Gulf hypoxia, to hydrophone recordings, to what we ate at camp.)  After talking with the teachers there, Hannah decided to use the money she had raised to go towards some badly-needed lab equipment for the environmental science classes.  The students there have been working with the Rivers Institute, getting out onto the water and into local swamps and marshes; perhaps one day some of those students will be able to travel down the river as well and experience some of the beauty and magic that we have on our trip. All-in-all a fitting way to close out our stay in New Orleans, sharing some of what we’ve learned and what we’ve grown to love about the river with some younger students.

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The arc of history may bend toward justice, but it curves slowly.  We have a long row to hoe, and we had a long way to the travel the length of the Mississippi River, but with each swing of the hoe we make a little progress, and each time we dip our paddle into the river, lean back and pull the water back, we move a little closer to the sea.

The Nile, the Mississippi, and Anhydrous Ammonia

cocodrie1

Cocodrie sits at the end of Louisiana’s Route 56, about two hours south of New Orleans on Terrebone Bay.  It’s name is the Cajun word for alligator (crocodile being the closest thing they had for those fabulous reptiles).  But there are no “cocodries” or alligators here any more.  In fact, there almost isn’t any Cocodrie at all.  It sits in an area where land is disappearing at an alarming rate.  Alligators are fresh water creatures, and here the water is distinctly salty.  Now the local “charismatic megafauna” is the bottlenose dolphin.  The community started out as farmland for the Acadian refugees; over time it shifted to fishing; now it is mostly temporary fishing “camps” hoisted up on the 20-foot pilings pictured above.  Carl, the Cajun captain of the research vessel we went out in, recounted driving out to the barrier islands with his father (in a car, that is).  Today, it took us an hour in a fast boat to get to the one remaining remnant of barrier island left, and that island’s days are numbered.  At the Louisiana Marine Consortium (LUMCON) in Cocodrie, where we are staying this week, we learned that their 50-year plan is, and I kid you not, to be under water.  That would certainly make them a thoroughly marine consortium.

The coast here is dissolving into the sea, primarily because of three things:  the fact that all the sediment coming down the Mississippi is funneled far out to sea between the high levees of the navigation channels, rising sea levels (and coastal subsidence), and because of the maze of channels cut into the bayous by the oil companies.  The maze of interconnections here between our use of fossil fuels, our desire to control and channel the river, and our modern industrial economy are complex and far-reaching indeed. Paul Tidwell’s Bayou Farewell, chronicles this process vividly (and is well worth reading).  The state of Louisiana has responded slowly, and the people of the Delta are bitter about this fact.  Currently Louisiana is building its “Morganza to the Gulf” flood protection wall, pictured here:

morganza_to_gulf

This is the region’s new Maginot Line against the next big hurricane.  At present at LUMCON their parking lot floods any time there is a high tide and a south wind of any strength.  During Katrina, the winds blew from the north, and they were left temporarily on dry ground.  Whenever (and it is a matter of when, not if) they get a hurricane that tracks a little further west, that would mean 150 mph winds from the south, with nothing between them and Venezuela but open water.  They are, to put it mildly, in big trouble.  When Carl took us out to look at the new storm levee, his summation of the effort was blunt and bitter: “They shoulda done this forty years ago.”  He is a man whose people have been abandoned by their government.  You will note from the map above that Cocodrie (and therefore LUMCON) is outside the line of defense, left to fend for itself.  The state is already withdrawing vital services from the area–no fire department, no post office, no schools.  Only four families still reside in Cocodrie.   Forty years earlier the storm protection levee could have been built south of Cocodrie and that community might be able to think about raising children there.

All this brings to mind the ongoing discussion about the seriousness of humanity’s impact on the natural world.  We should, by all accounts, be involved collectively in the process of what theologians like to call “discernment”– a period of careful, even prayerful, reflection and meditation on the best path forward.  Much of what passes for that today is either ignorant denial, outright panic, or a kind of depressed fatalism.  In Louisiana, when it comes to coastal land loss, we seem to get a healthy mix of all three.

On our trip down the river though the realities we have seen, smelled, heard, and swam in, are more complicated, hopeful and troubling in various ways.  I have been left at times reassured by nature’s resilience and by human determination to steward our resources; at others I have been impressed by the relentless onward push of industry and consumer capitalism.  Authors writing about environmental problems often play up the problems.  We all like a good story, something that scares us, and a lot of environmental writing tends to fall into that genre (witness my dire account of land loss above).  In some cases it is entirely warranted.  But on the river, many of the horrors I had expected to encounter did not materialize.  The river was much cleaner than we expected, the fish abundant, the restoration projects were showing many signs of success.  Yes, many things had changed, and the river had been radically altered by engineering;  but, at the same time, nature abhors a vacuum, and in that new river there was plenty of life.  Not always the life we would want to see (the silver maple, kudzu, bighead carp, or water hyacinth), but life nonetheless.  We were repeatedly surprised by the beauty and wildness we found along the river in places such as the “wild miles” of the lower Mississippi.

One of the stories that originally prompted me to take this trip was John McPhee’s vivid portrayal of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s ongoing efforts to keep the Mississippi River from jumping its banks and flowing down the Atchafalaya basin (which empties into the Gulf just to west of where we are now).  His The Control of Nature is a compelling tale, full of dramatic floods, impressive figures, and what seems to be impending catastrophe.  When we visited the actual “Old River Control Structure,” we found a set of impressive structures to be sure, but little of the sense of imminent disaster implied by McPhee’s account.  It is hard for journalists to resist a little hyperbole, and the experience of actually going there is almost always less dramatic than the accounts.  This to me is one of the most important things to be gained from experiential education–in James Joyce’s phrase, “the ineluctable modality of the visible” or more simply the inestimable value of first-hand experience.  The world has its own truth that no book or account (and God knows, no web site!) can capture, and we are well served by visiting the “real thing” and studying it carefully ourselves.

That said, there is still a real possibility that the Mississippi will, at some point, overwhelm the set of huge walls, dams, locks, and spillways that the Corps has constructed.  The whole lower Mississippi has been engineered by the Corps to be able to handle what they call a “Project Design Flood.”  This is a scenario in which the flow of the river hits 2.7 million cubic feet per second (cfs).  They think they have designed a system that can handle that amount of flow.  In 2011, the flow at Vicksburg was 2.3 million cfs (surpassing the amount of the great flood of 1927), and the system was able to handle it with room to spare. But when I asked our tour guide at the site what would happen if there were a flood that exceeded 2.7 million cfs he gave a shrug and said, “well, that’s what insurance and the government is for.”  An odd statement coming from a government official working for an agency was to defend the country. By government there, I suppose he meant FEMA and not the Corps.  If climate change kicks in as predicted (with a hotter atmosphere able to hold and then precipitate more water), they may have to come up with a new plan.

We are far from having achieved anything resembling balance or sustainability on the river.  In addition to the land loss in the Delta, the Herculean efforts to keep it flowing past Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana is also plagued with one of the world’s largest “dead zones,” an area of water largely devoid of marine life because of the huge blooms of phytoplankton that are fed by excess nitrogen fertilizer that flows out of the farm fields of the Midwest and into the Gulf.  Upstream we witnessed a bizarre and troubling development that exemplified other disconnections between what happens upstream and downstream on the river.

When settlers first landed on the Mississippi they generally had grand plans and hopes for their new communities, giving them names like New Boston and also made frequent reference back to the ancient cities of other great river civilizations, most notably the Nile’s Cairo and Memphis.  Through a complicated set of global dynamics, that connection back to Egypt has been realized, although not in the way those earlier settlers had first imagined.

In a strange twist in a very rural corner of southeastern Iowa a huge Egyptian conglomerate is constructing a $2 billion plant to produce fertilizer for the cornfields that stretch out from it in all directions. Orascom Construction International (OCI) is Egypt’s largest multinational corporation, part of the Orascom group founded by Onsi Sawaris.  When I was in Egypt in 2011 we could see the huge fertilizer and cement works there, many of which were run by Orascom during the business-friendly regime of Hosni Mubarek.  Reflecting a familiar kind of modern dysfunction, the need for fertilizer in Egypt came about largely because of the damming of the Nile River at Aswan, which cut off the supply of nutrient-rich sediment that would replenish the soil during the annual floods.  For millennia these floods were the original source of Egypt’s great prosperity.  Now those nutrients must be supplied by the energy-intensive process of creating nitrogen fertilizer in the form of anhydrous ammonia.  We saw the tanks of fertilizer scattered across the farm fields in Egypt, and see the same here in the Mississippi River valley.

Orascam_Wever_plant

The plant in Wever, Iowa is located in an old floodplain that, like the Nile, was once fed by periodic flooding of the Mississippi, but is now separated by the levees that line the river almost continuously from the Quad Cities to the Gulf of Mexico.  Our contact in Burlington, Steve Brower, mentioned that “Aldo Leopold actually recommended the area adjacent to the plant (Green Bay Bottoms) as a wildlife refuge in the early 1930’s when he was helping with plans for the IA Conservation Commission (forerunner Iowa Planning Board). The financing help at the National level fell through.” Financial help for the fertilizer plant, on the other hand, has been more than forthcoming, with the state, county, and local municipalities providing 100’s of millions of dollars in tax incentives to Orascom.  The incentives stem largely from the bidding war between states (in this case Illinois and Iowa), the result being a perverse kind of “beggar thy neighbor” policy.  Iowa gains a few hundred jobs, but at the estimated cost of about $1,000,000 in lost tax revenue for each permanent job created.

The process of producing (and using) the ammonia is energy intensive.  It uses the newly available fracked natural gas as a feed stock, and the fertilizer, once applied on the fields, releases the powerful greenhouse gas nitrous oxide (yes, laughing gas).  In addition, the run-off of excess nitrogen from the millions of acres of fields in the Mississippi watershed contribute to a myriad of environmental problems, most notably the hypoxic dead zone in the Gulf about which the shrimpers and fisherman of the Louisiana Delta are so acutely aware.

All in all it seems a really misguided and unsustainable way to go. Below the radar (we certainly hadn’t heard anything about this) we are investing billions, incentivized with millions of dollars, in a set of practices that will make both global warming and hypoxic dead zones worse.  This to over-produce a commodity that provides cheap feedstock to industrial agricultural processors that crank out a cornucopia of unhealthy foods, mostly laden with high fructose corn syrup (the nutritional equivalent to crack cocaine) that is driving the obesity and diabetes epidemic in this country.  We keep building walls and levees, separating ourselves from the river, trying to shelter ourselves from the storms and floods, all the while cutting off the supply of sediment needed to rebuild the coastline and pumping excess nutrients and greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.  Seems we could do a better job of discernment than that.

Thank God that the world and the river are so big, for otherwise it seems we would have used them up long ago; and thank God that nature is so vibrant and strong that it so often recovers from our countless assaults upon it.  But certainly we can do better.  Leave as much of the fossil fuels in the ground as possible (while transitioning as quickly as possible to renewables and greater efficiencies); to a much greater extent, we should get out the way of the river and let it do its thing.  The river has, for millions of years, worked amazingly well and created habitat and land, providing water, and carrying away waste.  If given have a chance to keep doing that, we still have a chance to live along an amazingly beautiful and productive river.  Concerted national and international and collective efforts are needed to shift our economy from its present course, and we must patiently and diligently organize and mobilize ourselves to push for these changes at all levels of government.  Pick your issue, focus on it, study it, and work on it. On a daily and more personal level, I will take the hard work and simpler life that comes from planting vegetables in the ground, paddling the river, paying attention to the wind and the cycles of the seasons, meeting with the kind and wise people that have gathered by the river, and smelling the pungent wild sage that grows on its banks.

Off the River

Another gap in the blogging, as our schedule continues at its usual frantic pace.  We have been through St. Louis, Memphis, and out on the big river with Quapaw Canoe Company from Clarksdale to Greenville, MS.  I made a quick trip back to Minneapolis to see family and take care of business back on campus and rejoined the group in Memphis.  As I write, we have switched to vans and arrived at the edge of the Gulf of Mexico in the last leg of our journey.  Between the demands of life on the road; the ongoing class schedule of exams, lectures, and papers; and the transitions from canoeing to city living, to bus, and back into canoes; we haven’t had much time for extra writing.  A few partial drafts of earlier blogs remain unfinished (I hope to get those wrapped up before too long, but then again, looking at our schedule for the remainder of the trip, I can’t make any promises.)

After Memphis we shuttled to Clarksdale, Mississippi in the heart of Blues country, where we met up with John Ruskie and his crew.  They took us out for a wonderful eight days of paddling on the big river, and there is plenty more to say about that.  But at the end of our last paddle I wanted to check in with each of the students as we ended the paddling and camping portion of the trip.  We had been “on the river” for ten weeks at that point, hadn’t showered in a week, and had paddled and hauled something like two tons of gear with us the whole way.  We had been roused very early that morning by the Quapaw crew for a breakfast that they had already cooked for us over an open fire, and then cross the river to Greenville before a big storm hit.  It was a frantic morning, packing up damp gear, hauling it down a steep, muddy slope, and then paddling out with (yet another) strong headwind.  The crossing went fine (the storm didn’t hit until that night) and we arrived at the landing by 7:30 AM.  We unloaded the three 30-foot canoes that we had traveled in with Quapaw and lugged the gear for the last time up the boat ramp to where the vans would meet us and transit the canoes back to Clarksdale.

Camera-phone in hand I asked each student for a “word of the day,” something that captured how they were feeling. I caught them off guard and they had to think of a word to describe their experience at that moment, so students were searching, thinking.  I wanted to capture that moment of coming off the river after 10 weeks before we transitioned back to the “modern world” and took to the vans as we drove south to explore the Bayou country and New Orleans.  What had the river taught them?  How had they changed or grown in that short time?

I ran into Hannah first, who does not like getting her picture taken, but she is always game for whatever we have going. It was still early in the morning and Hannah can be a little grumpy in the morning, but even then, she is a good sport.Hannah

Bobbie, sporting his Augsburg soccer shirt, and his “river beard” smiled as he lugged up a heavy load, declared that the word was “inspiring.”  I liked the sentiment, and found it fitting coming from Bobby–someone who is genuine and kind.Bobby

Izzie, with a big grin on her face declared that her word was “rad.” Back from her 2 week absence (due to an appendectomy) and not yet suffering from the stomach virus that would hit her the next day, she was very happy to have been with us all for the final week of paddling.  She is the “connector” in our family, and it is great to have her back.Izzie

Mike was pleased to be done and paused to pose slightly for the picture, hand on hip.  As I write, neither he nor I can recall his word, but I’m sure it was interesting and probably slightly humorous, and probably related to his favorite topic, light pollution! Mike

I caught Ricky off guard for once, and so he wasn’t he his usual “rapper” pose, and I was so pleased to have succeeded at this that I forgot to get his word.  He only got as far as “uhhh” and I had moved on.  I’m guessing he would have said something wise or mischievous.  One or the other.Ricky

Noah, in his playful, thoughtful way, figured that “water” sort of summed it up, and we certainly have been surrounded, immersed, submerged, inundated, and sated by the waters of and by the Mississippi.Noah

There is a lot of laughter in our group, which is a good thing.  Everyone, despite or perhaps because of the hard labor we were engaged in, smiled when I asked them for their word, and Blair was no exception.  At first she wasn’t sure about her word (decisiveness not been her most prominent trait), but she decided on accomplishment (more on that later).Blair

Katie declared very matter-of-factly that we were “finished,” and in one sense that was true.  In another way of course, as the river has taught us, there really is no end, just the constant and unceasing flow.  The paddling was done, but a month of the trip remained.  And once the trip was done, there would be the next thing, and so on.Katie

Karl with his loping walk and nod of the head, didn’t stop but answered philosophically that the word was “reward.” By putting ourselves out there in the world, pushing ourselves, we had been rewarded by, among other things, a real experience of the river and the world.Karl

Glen was loaded down with our large coffee pots and heading up the hill as well, and I had to catch him as he passed.  “Awesome” he said, and his smile seemed to reflect that sentiment.Glen

Jubilee, our resident Amazon, thought for a bit (with Blair, per usual, at her side) and decided that the word was “mud”–that thorough mixing of water and soil that is so much a part of the natural river.  We have learned to appreciate and embrace the mud of the river, and perhaps the “mud” of life as well on this trip.  Some lessons there to be sure.Jubilee

Emily, as exuberant and enthusiastic as ever, said her word was “amazing” and I think we would all say the same of her.Emily

Lily, with a playful shrug and easy laugh, thought that “rain” sort of summed it up.  We had paddled hard and hurried all morning to beat the rain, and had done so.Lily

Popeye, one of our guides for Quapaw, was too exhausted to speak, and lay prostrate but content on the grass, having expended his last ounce of energy for the trip. He had that nickname for a reason, but even the strongest have to rest every once in awhile.

Popeye

Natasha didn’t want her picture taken, and at first wouldn’t answer, but at last she agreed, and her word was, like Blair, accomplishment.  I would agree.  The pictures seem to reflect this–that everyone on the trip, despite how early we had risen, and how tired we all were, felt happy.  Part of this was, I think, the fact that we all did sense that we had just accomplished something significant, taken on a large challenge, and had an experience that would stay with them for the rest of their lives.

Natasha

All-in-all a contented group, who, with their two professors, and countless other support people, had paddled around 750 miles of the Mississippi River, carrying all their gear with them the whole way, seeing some amazing landscapes, meeting some wonderful people, and learning about what it means to try to live a good life in this world today.

In the Land of Flying Fish

It seems appropriate that, as we draw nearer to the land of Twain, our imaginations would become a bit more active, and that nature and man would cooperate to supply us with some extraordinary tales.  Places affect us, and it is hard not to think about Clemens and his cast of characters, his reflections and tales from the river.  A long time has passed since he was here, but still somehow one feels that we look on the same land and river that he did, despite all the changes that have occurred in the interim.

Even Tom Sawyer never told stories about flying fish on the Mississippi, but we had been warned about the Silver Carp below the Keokuk Dam, and sure enough not ten minutes after we had passed out of the massive lock, we were startled by several of these good-sized fish leaping out of the water as we passed.  They have a startle reflex that can send them easily as high as our heads, and to top it off they are covered in a pungent slime.  Leaving the Kibbe research station, one leaped up and smacked Hannah in the back of her head as it passed, to the delight of all and sundry (including Hannah, who finds just about everything amusing).  The next day we encountered more, and I had the pleasure of having one adventurous fellow leap into our canoe at my feet, where he proceeded to flop around in a muscular fashion until I succeeded in grabbing him by the tail and holding my prize up to display for the group before ignominiously heaving him back into the river.  Easiest (and so far only) catch I’ve made on the river.  But my boots still smell like fish.

The river is rich in life below its murky surface, despite the volume of waste we continue to dump into it, with the students having hauled up paddlefish, gar, blue gills, crappies, catfish (as well as plenty of carp) in their gill-netting and electro-fishing outings with our generous host Jim Lamer from Western Illinois University.  It is a rich, subaqueous ecosystem, although we remain largely oblivious to the menagerie swimming about below us as we paddle along.  More reminders of the resilience of nature in the face of our relentless consumption of its resources and use of it as a receptacle for our waste.

North of Hannibal the river opened out, and we paddled through largely unsettled country, quiet, a little melancholy, and conducive to contemplation.  The land feels poised between seasons, the turning of the leaves has caught up with us, but the air is still warm.  Our last day heading into Hannibal we at last got a break from the incessant winds and enjoyed a more pensive paddle across glassy water, as we are solidly into the “Middle Mississippi” and no longer in the Upper.

Approaching Hannibal it is hard not to think about this place and what it was like for Samuel Clemens to grow up there.  The acerbic critic Clemens would have much to say about his home town today (dubbed by the local Chamber of Commerce as “America’s Hometown”), and he almost certainly would be saddened by what he saw.  No town of course could live up to that standard of one’s romanticized youth, no matter how well preserved, but Hannibal is now just another fairly rundown midwest town.  He left it as an adult, settling in the more urbane and cosmopolitan New York and Connecticut, and looking around Hannibal today, I’d have to say he wouldn’t want to live there now.

Some of the less touristy parts of Hannibal. A town cursed with one claim to fame and little active commerce.

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The gross commercialization, the commodification of those figures he created, has  left little of the vitality and excitement of that mythologized town of his youth.  The tour of the “Mark Twain Caves” was geologically interesting, but had all the mystery and excitement of a rerun of the Disney movie of Tom Sawyer.  In the gift shop (where the tour inevitably ended) there were plenty of knick-knacks made in China, but no copies of any of Twain’s more interesting political works (my favorite being his deeply satirical “War Prayer“), nor his new and controversial Autobiography (which is so long and strange and convoluted that no one seems quite to know what to do with it).  No room for critique or satire or complexity (not that I had any expectation of finding them there), just Americana and little statuettes of Becky Thatcher in America’s Hometown.

I wish Twain were around to respond to the businesses that have sprung up along the river though. Just upstream we passed the sprawling industrial complex owned by BASF, the largest chemical manufacturing company in the world (revenues in 2014 of over $74 billion). It produces the following list of delightfully named products:  PROWL, PURSUIT, ARSENAL, RAPTOR, CADRE, PHANTOM, and EXTREME herbicides and pesticides, spread no doubt on the vast expanses of cropland that surround us.  BASF was the first producer of nitrogen fertilizer and is the latest incarnation of the I.G. Farben company that manufactured chemical weapons and the poison gas used in the Nazi gas chambers.  With a little rebranding and repurposing they are still at work mass producing poisons (and plenty else besides).  In 2009 the plant in Hannibal “accidentally discharged” carcinogenic hexavalent chromium into the Mississippi, although the extent of the damage caused remains unknown.  Rivers fortunately are constantly flushing themselves out (which is why so many factories are located along their banks).  Next to them is the General Mills plant where they make processed pork (fed the corn and soybeans grown in the fields that have been purged of anything else by those BASF pesticides). It was formerly the Underwood Deviled Ham factory, located there because of Mr. Underwood’s fondness for Twain’s legacy. I’m not so sure that the feeling would have been mutual.  Given Twain’s interest in Lucifer (see his Letters from the Earth), he would probably consider it aptly named.

The town itself has its core of well-labelled landmarks with any link to the young Sam Clemens, surrounded by dilapidated buildings, empty storefronts, and the remains of the blue collar town of the mid-twentieth century.  The grocery store we stopped in was notable for the stacked cases of cheap whiskey (shades of Huck’s alcoholic father), and many of the patrons appeared to be in very poor health (this has been true of other small river towns in which we’ve stopped).  The taxi driver shared how he got very busy at the beginning of the month when everyone got their government checks and would spend them all on taxi rides to restaurants for a few weeks until they ran out of money.  There were certainly signs of vitality in town (I passed one small business with a group of men gathered inside, engaged in lively conversation), and I’m sure if I stayed longer we would get to know more of the good people of the town.  But it seems unlikely to inspire any tales of the spirited hi-jinx and river adventures for which it takes such credit now.

But for us the river remains, and I’m confident that Twain would still want to travel the river, as he did later in life and wrote about in his Life on the Mississippi.  Even then, in the 1880s, he noted the ways the river had been tamed and caged in by the Corps of Engineers.  But it had then, and certainly still has now, the splendor and power and timelessness that we are experiencing now, camping as we are on sand bar on Shuck Island.  From across the water, with the lights shining on the water, and the tour boat the Mark Twain cruising slowly upriver, Hannibal does still have some magic to it, and we look forward tomorrow to loading our boats, and like Huck and Jim, heading downstream toward St. Louis, not knowing who or what we will encounter along the way.

Stump fields, home stays, and Aldo Leopold’s hometown

The last few weeks have been so busy that it has been hard to squeeze in time to update the blog.  Our days are full of study, paddling, cooking, and fieldwork.  We are on a fairly arduous pace (in other words we are frequently pretty tired), and finding that there is so much to see and do that we are fairly overwhelmed, and wish we could extend our stays in each town we stop in. The studying can take place in all sorts of settings (here in a tent with headlamps and the whiteboard):
tent_studying

After Dubuque we headed through Pools 12 and 13, and the 13th was indeed unlucky for us. We had strong winds in the pool with fairly large waves, and had to cross a treacherous stump field.  The stump fields are the remains of the old floodplain forests that were logged off before the river was dammed.  Once the dams were in place the stumps were submerged and in some places they remain just inches below the surface.  In most places they aren’t a problem, but lower Pool 13 if full of old stumps just below the surface and our canoes caromed off them as we tried to get down to the lock.  Next time, we will be sure to stick to the main channel.  After making through the stumps we had a long wait for a barge at the lock (when there is a barge locking through, there is about a two-hour wait).  It was challenging for the whole group to navigate the large pool with those winds and hazards, and then to have to wait out the barge on an exposed and rocky spit.  These are the kinds of “growth opportunities” we find on trips like this.

Below the lock we paddled through Beaver Slough adjacent to Clinton, Iowa, past a series of massive agro-industrial processing plants, mostly owned by Archer Daniels Midland (ADM).  The smells and effluent were an affront to the senses and a rude change from our experiences so far.  We are entering the heart of the corn and soybean producing region and the infrastructure and processing facilities are evident everywhere.  It is a landscape set up to mass produce and process these two products into everything from corn starch to high fructose corn syrup to biodiesel, ethanol, and grain alcohol, but it does not seem to have much to do with anything like food or land stewardship.

Direct discharge to the Mississippi River from our friends at ADM.

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From there we headed down to the Rock Creek Marina and Campground, where we regrouped and met up with our friends and colleagues from Augustana College.  Christopher worked on a minor repair of one of the boats, and we went out to the town of Clinton with students from Augustana to do a neighborhood survey about residential storm water management there.  It was a great opportunity both to get to know the students from Augustana and to talk with local residents about where their water goes and the impact that can have on the river.  After the afternoon in Clinton we headed out to Sabula for pizza at a place called Bombfire.  It was one of the most bizarre and entertaining dining establishments any of us had been in–with a wildly generous crew, a gypsy singer with a voice like a well-tuned chainsaw, and, let’s say, “eclectic” decorations (their website, such as it is, will give you some feel for the place).  I’ll just say that if you ever have a chance to stop by there for some pizza, do.

bombfire

Prof. Reuben Heine, who has been an amazing partner on our trip, and a few students joined us in the canoes for a morning of paddling and some water quality testing and plankton tows.  It is fun to share our experiences with other students and to think about the potential for future collaborations with high schools and colleges all along the river.

Heading down toward the Quad Cities we landed at the rowing club there and were greeted there by our host families who each took a student or two and ferried them back to hot showers, home-cooked meals, and even yoga and pedicures (!) It was another example of the generous hospitality we’ve experienced along the way and our first chance to sleep in a house since we left.  We enjoyed hosting members of the Augustana community for a cook-out in town the second night, and were also joined by a few through-paddlers (and a couple who were in a sailboat heading south).  Mitchell and Malcolm (aka the Big Muddy Boys) ended up joining us for several class meetings and outings, and their level of interest and excitement about our program was energizing for us as well.  We toured the Moline Water treatment plants and the Army Corps visitor center at Lock & Dam 15 as well.  Reuben took us out to hunt for old survey markers and sites photographed by the Army Corps back in the 1930s in the process of building the lock and dam system.  It was interesting to be part of this new research project on changes in the floodplain in the last 100 years, and we hope to participate again in the future.

Well fed, clean, and with lots of new friends, we left the Quad Cities with Prof. Kelly Kadera from the University of Iowa (and Lily’s mother) and ended up in Muscatine at the Lazy Z Trailer Park.  It wasn’t a planned stop, but we were slowed down by the winds and another delay at a lock, and were glad to stop for the night, especially since we were joined there by Lily’s Dad, who is a wonderful cook.  He made us an amazing paella that night and a hearty egg breakfast the next morning.  Kelly lectured on Elinor Ostrom’s work on managing common pool resources and implications for the Mississippi River, and also led the students in some yoga.

Guest lecture from Prof. Kelly Kadera on managing common pool resources.

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We decided to stop in Burlington, IA to have another rest day and get access to the library and coffee shops, and were again surprised to meet up with some local hosts associated with the Leopold Landscape Alliance.

In front of Aldo Leopold's house with Steve Brower and Jerry Rigdon.

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Steve and Jerry gave us a tour of Aldo Leopold’s birthplace and childhood home and shared their extensive knowledge of his life and other aspects of local history, including the long, rocky history of relations between the railroad and the city which is the namesake for one of the largest railroads in the country (Burlington Northern Santa Fe [BNSF]).  The public library in Burlington was a great resource as well and we camped out there for two days, holding class in their meeting rooms, and taking advantage of the nice study spaces and internet connection.  We were interviewed for the local paper and radio (this seems to happen in almost every town we stop in).

We have had great luck with rain (almost none since the first week), but the wind has been up almost every day, and more often than not has been blowing up river.  This has made for many challenging and tiring paddle days, although we are all in pretty good shape by now.  We were fortunate to have some good tailwinds one day and hoisted a makeshift sail constructed of rain flies and some pvc pipe we bought in the Quad Cities.  It made for a great afternoon as all four boats rafted up and cruised along at 4 knots with almost no paddling involved.

A successful sail in Pool 17. We sailed 10 miles in about 2 hours!

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We have passed Nauvoo, the site of the early Mormon settlement, and through the 1,200 foot long Keokuk lock (a 38 ft. drop) and hydroelectric plant.

Inside the giant lock 19. 40 feet deep and 1200 ft long. Largest bathtub I've ever been in.

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It was the first major lock and dam on the river (built in 1908) and a sign of things to come for the rivers of United States, as the next 50 years would see the construction of thousands of huge dams around the country. We see the implications and major alterations the dams have caused on the river and wish we could paddle the river as it existed in the 1800s. But there is still amazing life and resilience in the river, and we see thousands of birds heading south along the flyway.
The night sky, the sunrises and sunsets have been consistently beautiful and we all have become very accustomed to living, eating, studying, and sleeping outside.  We are at the Kibbe Research Station near Warsaw, IL tonight, and sleeping in their dorms.  But for all of us it feels strange to be inside, with electric lights, a kitchen, and even a ping pong table.  A few of us opted to still sleep outside, with a few tents pitched in the yard.  It feels good to be close to the world, connected to it.  We are in tune with the cycles of the day, the feel of the wind, the sound of the birds, the change of the season to a degree that just doesn’t happen when we sleep inside.  I know we will miss this when we are done, and for all that we have gained from civilization, there is definitely also a great deal that we have lost.  The simple pleasures of spending the day outside, engaged in physical activity, with a concrete and easily understood goal (paddle downstream, pitch camp, make food, paddle again, don’t drown) are a welcome change from the complexities, stresses, and generally sedentary lifestyle back in the city.

Sunrise # 50

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From Harper’s Ferry to Dubuque

Tonight we sit on another sandy beach, just south of Savannah, Illinois, after a nice 23-mile paddle.  The weather has cooled off, our muscles are rested after a layover in Dubuque, and we had the wind at our back for at the second half of the day.  We have traveled this week through some of the prettiest stretches of the river, from Pool 7 to Pool 10, but in Pool 13 now the landscape levels off and we caught our first glimpse of farmland from the river yesterday.  We are emerging from the great valley carved out by the glacial River Warren into its floodplain.  But the river always has its charms, and this stretch of the river has been fairly peaceful and undeveloped.  Most of our company on the water is eagles, egrets, herons, and the occasional jumping fish or turtle that slides off its sunning log.  In the slough just on the other side of where we’re camping tonight we can hear the chorus of honks from what must be a very large flock of geese, staging there on their way south.

The stretch of river we are leaving is referred to by ecologists as an “anastomosed stream,” a term derived from human anatomy, meaning a set of braided channels or “veins” that wind between stable islands.  The scenes we observe as we paddle along are not the same as the precolonial era, as almost all the channel islands are now monocultures of silver maple, but still the side channels and backwaters are full of life. The naturally leveed floodplain with high bluffs on either bank, is all part of the Upper Mississippi Fish and Wildlife Refuge, and as a refuge it still functions quite well.

We have been struck by the lack of garbage along the way.  At campsites we may find a stray bottle or two, but over-all there is almost no litter.  All the abandoned drums, appliances, and other detritus of our consumer society have been removed and it seems there is a renewed sense of respect and stewardship of the river.  Certainly one major contributor to this change has been the work of the local river clean-up organization called Living Lands and Waters (which we are reading about for one of our classes).  Thirty years ago our campsites would have been much worse and the whole experience much less pleasant.

In the past 10 days we have met with my old friend Jon “Hawk” Stravers, who shared with us his love of the Red Shouldered Hawk and Cerulian Warblers, and played a few songs for us; his friend and colleague Robert Vavra, a clammer and fisherman, who is now working as a tour boat operator, and keeper of river stories brought his boat out to our camp on the what is known locally as “Gilligan’s Island” and cooked up some freshly caught river fish for us.

That kind of generosity has been a frequent experience for us, and through our pilgrimage down the river we are reminded again and again of the basic goodness of human beings.  In Prairie du Chien we were overwhelmed with hospitality, allowed to stay in their park, offered showers, rides, and given contributions to the educational project one of our students is organizing.

In Guttenberg, Iowa we showed up during their Germanfest and surprised the students with a stop at the high school all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast.  In Dubuque we stayed at the National Mississippi River Museum and had presentations on the history of the French explorers, the fur trade, voyageurs, and local Indian tribes, and did studies of a local wetland, and mussel breeding experiments.  While there we slept on the dredge boat William M. Black, named after a USACE General who, among other things, helped build sanitation systems in Cuba after the Spanish-American War.  It was the Corps’ first big dredging boat, and could suck up huge amounts of sediment from the river, while burning 5-8,000 gallons of fuel oil per day.  That ended during the oil crisis of 1973 when fuel prices got so high the Corps couldn’t afford to keep paying for the fuel.

It has been a month on the river now, and it feels very natural to be falling asleep and waking up along its shores.  In a few days we’ll be in the Quad Cities, where we have a busy schedule planned with our hosts from Augustana College.

Letters from the River # 1

The following is an article by our own Blair Stewig, who is also working as a writer and “River Correspondent” for Augsburg weekly newspaper, The Echo.  She will be sending in a series of articles as we go, and we will post them to the blog as well.

The students on the Augsburg river semester have now traveled approximately 250 miles from Minneapolis to Guttenberg Iowa. Thus far we have experienced extreme changes in the appearance of the river and learned about the many uses of the river. We have witnessed barges with 15 tows meandering slowly down the river carrying coal and grain. We have slept under the stars. We have sung numerous songs around the campfire accompanied by an acoustic guitar played by Noah Cameron. It can be said that a lot has happened in the last 3 weeks.

Our typical day begins with a six o’clock wake-up, followed by breaking down camp and then a filling breakfast of oatmeal and granola with all of the possible fixings. Of course, a breakfast would not be complete without a few cups of “Cowboy Joe” to get our day going. We are usually on the water by 8:30 AM on transit days (days we travel 16-20 miles). Transit days we typically do not have class but we do occasionally have site visits along the way. As we paddle we take in our surroundings, noting the wing-dams, the location of the 9-foot channel, any dredging that is occurring and the appearance of the bluffs and the barges that we pass by as we travel. We get into camp between 4:00 PM and 5:30 PM on transit days. We have camp set up and dinner ready by about 6:30 PM. We spend our evenings laughing and singing songs around the campfire while we reflect upon our travels and make s’mores (with Reese’s in place of chocolate). Sleep tends to come fairly early with most of us drifting off by 9:30 PM or 10:00 PM. On days that we have classes we will either paddle shorter distances of 6-8 miles or not paddle at all. Classes can happen any day of the week and tend to be on rest days. Class could happen anywhere. The first stream ecology class took place in the Laundromat in Lake City while we were washing our clothes for the first time.

As for coursework; independent studies and group courses are underway with a completed POL 241 test and other course tests soon to follow. Tests were taken in our tents or on the beach in Crazy Creek chairs overlooking the Mississippi River and the Lansing bridge for inspiration. For the courses themselves, we have many guest lecturers and many site visits which constitutes class time.

Some highlights from the past few weeks include visiting the U.S. Geological survey center in Lacrosse Wisconsin. Here we were able to take a peek into their research laboratory where they were conducting research on the silver and bighead carp. We also had the opportunity to see some young lake sturgeon and paddlefish; some of the oldest species in the upper Mississippi River basin (UMRB). Fun fact: of the 150 freshwater fish in the UMRB none have gone extinct in the last 100 years. This is pretty extraordinary considering how polluted the Mississippi River was before the clean water act (CWA). A few other highlights would be visiting the Genoa fish hatchery, hiking the sugarloaf in Winona Minnesota and visiting Prairie Island in Minnesota. Another high point was learning more about island restoration projects from the Iowa DNR, (while touring the island by river and by foot) as well as getting serenaded by the “hawk guy” of Iowa. We were even invited to have a fish fry of Catfish, Buffalo Fish, and Carp on “Gilligan’s Island” (the local’s name for Island 167). The fish was a lot better than we were expecting. The fellow who made us the fish was a clammer on the Mississippi for quite some time. He was forced to start a tavern (now called “Misfits”) in order to make a living when the zebra mussels (an aggressive invasive specie) forced him to stop clamming for a living. He shared stories of the mussel pearl button days in Muscatine Iowa and about the mussel button making process.

Current shower tally: 7
River Baths: ∞

Energy and Power on the River

Last night the stars were out, the air cool, and the lights from the Lansing (Iowa) bridge were reflected on the tranquil surface of the river as we camped about River Mile 664.  The students have been studying for their first exam, sitting around a campfire on the sandy beach, poring over the readings and working together to learn the material.  Having crammed as much in as they could for the evening, they transitioned to guitar and singing, and it felt like the end of a good day.  The strains of their improvised “Campfire Blues” (and accompanying laughter) lulled the rest of us to sleep.

We began yesterday at a very muddy landing on the Bad Axe River in Wisconsin, clambering up the bank to visit the Genoa National Fish Hatchery, where they raise tens of thousands of trout, sturgeon, walleye, and now fresh water mussels.  It is an elaborate operation, all made necessary by overfishing and radical alterations of the river and floodplain.  But like a fish-producing factory, they crank out fish to restock rivers and lakes all over the country.  This is also the site of the Massacre of Bad Axe, where Chief Blackhawk was finally defeated and hundreds of Sauk Indians died.  We have certainly changed this land, with great energy, emptying if of people, fish, mussels, and old growth forests, and replacing them with new settlers, cities, corn fields, and power plants.  The restless energy of the European settlers is present everywhere.

In contrast, at the end of a long day of paddling we are nothing if not keenly aware of the energy we have expended. Students sprawl on the sand, arms aching, and stomachs growling.

After a long paddle with a headwind.

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The motor boats speed by us and huge barges lumber past carrying thousands of tons of cargo, but paddling as hard as we can we travel the river at no more than four miles an hour.  But it is a satisfying feeling to know you have put in a good hard day’s work, and it makes us think about how much energy we use back home.

We have become so used to living in a world of fossil-fuel powered labor-saving devices that we have largely lost touch with our own bodies and what they are for.  On the trip we are healthy, happy, sleeping well, and having a minimal impact on the world around us.  With our solar panels to power these laptops and cell phones, a canoe, paddle, and locally grown fresh food, we are good to go (with some exceptions).  We in general consume very little electricity, but still when we get to a source of shore power, the available outlets are swarmed with electronic devices of all sorts, hungrily drinking up the free flow of electrons.

Charging devices in the camp laundry before heading back to the river for more island camping.

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Our solar panels can power us most days, but only when the sun shines and we have time to set everything up.

Human powered and solar powered = zero carbon & good health!

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Back home we struggle to find time to get exercise, bounce from one diet to the next, experience ennui, and seek numerous distractions.  It raises the question of what exactly we are getting from all this energy we use.  Certainly we want some help and machines to avoid extreme or dangerous labor, but beyond that we need to embrace the value, the joy, the deep satisfaction of a good day’s work accomplished with our bodies and hands.

And power production is plainly evident along the river.  The Dairyland Power Genoa # 3 coal-fired power plant, a towering facility on the river, is one of the 29 located in the Upper River.  It includes one small nuclear reactor built in the 1960s, and shut down in 1987.  It is being slowly dismantled, with some of the low-level waste being shipped off to a storage site in South Carolina.  The high-level waste is still stored on site, still waiting a national decision on where to store these long-lived toxins.  The answer so far has been NIMBY.

Paddling by the Genoa Power Plant, on of the many such power generating stations on the river.

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We have passed one nuclear plant so far, at Prairie Island, venturing close enough to be caught in the outflow from the power plant, where the water temperature spiked briefly.  As we paddled by, a security guard came out and got on the megaphone to tell us to move along, as we were too close to the shore and their security zone.  The plants constitute a major presence along the river, located in areas with little political clout, such as the Prairie Island Indian Community.  One needs a great faith in the engineers that this pile of radioactive material, located in the upper reaches of the largest river in North America, will not at some point come spilling south.  The implications of such an event are hard to imagine, but still somehow during the 1970s we saw fit to locate all these nuclear power plants along rivers from which millions of people draw their drinking water.  For the Dakota and Mdewaketon on Prairie Island the plants are just another in the long line of affronts their people have suffered, and they have found health and environmental problems that appear to be linked to the presence of the plant.  There are 21 nuclear power plants in the Mississippi River watershed, five of them located on the main stem itself, using the steady water supply for steam and the huge heat capacity of the water to cool the steam down.  In addition to the power plants, we see the steady flow of coal and crude oil shipped by rail, barge, and pipeline along the river, and several oil refineries as well.  While traveling in Egypt I was struck by the centrality of water to their economy;  here the nexus between water and power generation is at the heart of our way of life.

We have such a great restlessness, this hunger for power, and need to tinker with the world.  Never content just to leave things be, humans need to arrange the world around them, often with mixed results.  We dam the rivers, kill off the fish, and then busily proceed to go about producing new ones.  Not content to spend a solid day of working with our hands, we invent steam engines, and drive cars, but are left with this vague sense of dissatisfaction.  We can’t seem to learn that lesson from the river, which just diligently does its work of erosion, transport, and deposition; its slow, relentless flowing, driven endlessly by the rain falling on the land.

Swan Island

There are few places I can think of where the mix of nature and artifice is more thorough and complex than the Mississippi River, and one of the more fortunate outcomes of that is Swan Island in Weaver Bottoms in Pool 5.  It is this oddly shaped artificial island that from above looks like some postmodern construct from Dubai molded out of dredge material by the Army Corps of Engineers;  but to sit on the island it looks now like a bit of Edenic paradise, rife with life, a thriving prairie, and surrounded by clear water and thousands of water fowl. It is another testament to the fact that, when given half a chance, all these wild and beautiful plants and animals spring forth with great fecundity.

The Corps, in collaboration with local Departments of Natural Resources and the Fish & Wildlife System has taken to rebuilding islands in this stretch of the river as part of their work at mitigating the impact of the range of previous alterations they have some diligently carried out over the last 150 years.  The islands take a range of strangely symmetrical shapes that remind me of some of the Indian mounds found in the region, and I wonder to what degree that was a conscious choice.

We stayed three nights on Swan Island, conducting field studies, taking underwater video in the clear water, and discussing indigenous perspectives on land stewardship, with campfire storytelling and reading in the evenings.  

Discussion of the hydrological cycle, water chemistry, and local geology.

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The scenery on the island was stunning, to say the least.

Sunset on Swan Island

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Our paddle out of Lake Pepin was much easier than the passage down the top half.  We had a nice tailwind, and a rested and stronger set of paddlers.  We landed at Reads Landing at the confluence of the Chippewa River, set up camp on the sandy shore, and ferried across fro dinner at the Reads Landing Brewing Company, where we were joined by Ann Bancroft of polar exploration fame.  We had a delightful evening visiting with her, hearing about her exploits, discussing river exploration, and figuring out how to connect as we travel down the Mississippi and she travels down the Ganges with “Your Expedition” there.  Izzie and Noah recorded an interview with her that they are looking to work up into a podcast.  We’ll let you know once it is posted online!

Our next morning we had another heavy rainstorm and had to pack up very wet, sandy gear to paddle down to Wabasha, where we met visited the National Eagle Center and then pushed on to Swan Island.  As we get used to rigors of the trip, and our paddling muscles get stronger we are finding that we can cover more river miles, which will help with our busy schedule.

Leaving Swan Island we had another brisk northerly breeze, bringing cool nights, and much less sweaty paddling.  It prompted as well an attempt at hoisting a sail rig using some of our poles and rain flies, but the poles proved “under-scantled” and we had to break out the paddles.  But this is again a gorgeous stretch of the river, lined by high bluffs, braided side channels, and a healthy current, so we covered the 16 miles to Winona without much trouble.  We are all a bit tired, we would have to say, as we continue to adjust to this rigorous lifestyle, where even getting some water often involves hauling the water back to camp from a distant spigot.

In Winona we are at one of the typical American campgrounds, moved grass, fire rings, a herd of Winnebagos, a commissary, and all the peacefulness and tranquility of a bar on Friday night (But we don’t mind the showers). It was in the mid-40s last night, so our sense of urgency to head south is up a notch. We eye the birds heading down the flyway and know we are at least heading in the right direction.  

Today we joined students from Winona State University on the Research Vessel Cal Fremling on the river for a short tour and talk with Prof. Mike DeLong.  It was nice to meet the WSU students and discuss issues around river engineering and what is called “floodplain connectivity” along the river.

River tour with faculty and students from Winona State U on the Calvin Fremling.

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Tonight we will join the Dakota Gathering here for a Unity Dinner before returning to camp, and tomorrow it’s more classes, and a visit to the Winona Maritime Art Museum.

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.