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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.

Expedition Log: Sept. 1

0530: Canoes arrive and students and do a great job of loading the boats; 0800 ceremony begins with Pres. Pribbenow, Mayor Coleman, and River Troubadour Larry Long, who sent us off with song.  Enthusiastic crowd of friends, family, and supporters; we set off with a flotilla of 8 additional voyageur canoes and paddled down to South St. Paul with flags flying. 1200 Flotilla participants were shuttled back to Harriett Island and expedition paddled to River Mile (RM) 823 for our first camp on a nice, open sandy spot on River Right. Eagles, osprey, pelicans, and limestone cliffs, with some conversation about local geology; passed 6 “through-paddlers” (go the length of the river) in kayaks and canoes.  Spirits good despite lack of sleep and very hot conditions; swim in the river was delicious; students have jumped right in with camp duties, and are excited about the trip, but a little apprehensive about the coursework and how to keep up with their studies. Brief campfire until the mosquitoes drove us into our tents, where we slept the sleep of the extremely exhausted.  Rain at night but all stayed dry. LOCATION

Planning an expedition

July 29th, and the countdown clock now reads 34 days until the launch.  In my office there are solar panels, large batteries, a d-frame dip net, pelican cases full of electronic gear, and a large box of books that will be our trip library. My email inbox is full of contacts from researchers, local DNR officials, museum staff, river guides, students, faculty, and assorted others with ideas, arrangements, and logistical details for this three-and-a-half month journey.  This has been a different kind of preparation than for a regular semester to be sure.

This undertaking has only come to fruition with the help of a whole team of people at Augsburg, Wilderness Inquiry, and the network of folks along the river. It is a powerful reminder of the richness of the community of which I am a part, as well as the dense network of people connected to the river all along its length.  We have been setting up research, internship, and other work and study opportunities for the students on the trip, and I am amazed at the amount of activity and learning opportunities the students will have on the trip.  Today I’ve been emailing with Ann Bancroft about collaborating with an expedition she is co-leading this Fall that will consist of eight women from six continents going down the Ganges River.  The potential for linking these two expeditions is tremendous, and we’ll keep you posted!  Closer to home we’re lining up activities for visits everywhere from La Crosse, Wisconsin, to Dubuque, St. Louis, Memphis, Greenville, New Orleans, plus a bunch of places none of us have heard of.  So for instance, today I learned that it looks like we’ll be sleeping on an old dredge boat in Dubuque that is docked at the Mississippi River Museum there. My colleague Thorpe Halloran has been setting up all sorts of site visits and field research for us in Mississippi and Louisiana, and I can’t wait to check out those spots as well.

I’m playing around with a Go-Pro for the trip.  Here’s a little tour of my office in the midst of the preparation: