In 2014 Paddle Forward completed the 300 plus mile journey from Chicago, Illinois to the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers.  The ILLINOIS river proved to be a unique experience as beauty, industry, and agriculture shaped the river experience.  explore these themes in detail by reading our blog from the trip, watching videos, and reading past updates on google+.     

Trip Highlights


Jessica Colbaugh was the first college student to receive an off-campus directed study to participate in a Paddle Forward expedition! For future trips, we hope to bring on more college students to learn from the river and delve deeper into a related project before, during, and after the expedition!


"A trip with Paddle Forward emphasized that healthy rivers are still vitally important to our nation's ecosystems and economy. Paddling, eating, and sleeping along the river for a month offered a constant reminder of how vibrant and well-used our rivers are, even those polluted waters that run through our largest cities." - Mark Emmons, 23


Paddle Forward Jess

Jessica Colbaugh was born and raised in Minnesota. She moved from the small town of Isanti to the Twin Cities to study at the University of Minnesota. She’s currently working on her undergrad in Fisheries and Wildlife with an emphasis in Conservation Biology. Summer after summer her family visited northern Minnesota to spend time outdoors, and she developed a love of the wilderness and water. She has a passion for teaching, working with children, and sharing the value of nature. Jess is very excited to join the Wild River Academy team and grow from her experiences with them. This fall she is taking a directed study at the U to develop the curriculum WRA sends to K-12 teachers for the adventure learning program Paddle Forward. Jess really enjoys mornings, playing tennis, biking, hiking, and baking!


Lee Vue previously paddled the Mississippi River last year with Paddle Forward. She grew up in Saint Paul, Minnesota and currently work as a freelance photographer. She obtained my BA in Political Science from the University of Minnesota- Twin Cities. Her first experience into the great outdoors was at the age of thirteen and since then she continues to spend time among lakes, tall trees, rising mountains, and rolling rivers. She's looking forward to those unexpected moments and chance meetings with people along the river that will make the experience more than just an outdoors adventure. It’s about making connections, new friendships, living in a micro-community, mobility by canoeing, and finding the simple joys at moving at a slow pace under the open skies.

Liz Paddle Forward


Liz Just is a native Wisconsinite who grew up outside of Madison, WI.  She attended the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities where she pursued a degree in Environmental Education and Sustainability Studies.  During college, an ongoing love for the outdoors merged with her studies fueling her current passions and interests.  She has spent the last two years exploring different career paths and building a community in Minneapolis, MN. After participating in Paddle Forward last year, she was excited to take on a leadership role this year. 



Mark Emmons is a Minnesota native who grew up in Northfield, a small river town on the Cannon River, 40 miles south of the Twin Cities. His second home is the Northwoods of MN and Canada where he has spent every summer since the age of 13 going on wilderness canoe trips with YMCA Camp Widjiwagan. These expeditions took him to increasingly remote places, eventually landing him in the Arctic Circle, the northern limit of civilization. He looks forward to the contrast of those wild rivers with the Chicago River, which cuts through the middle of one of America’s greatest cities, and the Illinois, a river that serves as a vital artery to the heart of the rural Midwest.
He graduated from St. Olaf College with a degree in Environmental Studies. He look forward to extending his education by interviewing people along the river and finding out how they view one of their most precious resources. He'll be the main blogger on our blog at      

NICK RYAN is the Director of Operations for Wild River Academy. He was part of the Mississippi River 2013 Expedition team. This year, he is acting as the support vehicle for the paddle team. He will get to experience the traffic of Chicago contrasted against the open-road quality of rural Southwestern Illinois roads. He will resupply the paddlers with food, take them to present at schools, make them laugh with funny jokes, and transport them to meet mayors, reporters, Army Corps Engineers, and other important representatives from Chicago to St. Louis. Whenever he has free time,  he looks forward to squeezing in a ton of long runs along the Chicago, Des Plaines, and Illinois Rivers. The opportunity to be on his feet and explore the roads running parallel to the river are why he is excited to drive support for this trip.



ANNA JOHNSON made sure we survived by advising on all things safety. Her light-heart and happy disposition kept our morale high; preventing the otherwise inevitable mutiny. She is extremely knowledgeable about the outdoors, and plays the banjo. She grew up in Evanston, IL, but spent her summers at Camp Bil-O-Wood in northern Ontario. It was on these trips that she developed a passion for the environment, a love of canoeing, and formed incredible relationships, all of which define who she is today. Anna ditched her home in the flat lands of Chicago to attend Colorado College and earn a degree in Political Science and a minor in Environmental Issues. She moved to Washington, D.C. to gain experience in environmental policy. After working with an environmental non-profit, spending the summer on an educational organic farm, and interning with the White House Council on Environmental Quality, she joined Wild River Academy.


MARISA MADEJ hails from Upstate New York. The Midwest's massive corn fields surprised her. She had never seen such agriculture. Many people drive through Illinois and see the corn fields. Rarely do people get to watch as the corn fields are harvested, processed and stored in silos, then transported via barge traffic down the Illinois River. Marissa's day job is that of an environmental education teacher for Nature's Classroom. She was invaluable in her advisement on our curriculum as well as school visits. The video and blog content we were putting out were of interest to her as well. She helped us streamline and adapt to make the best possible videos on our trip.

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