This must be the place.

By Sami


We are ending. This trip is nearly a destination. The we that we’ve been for 68 days is almost you’s and I’s. There is something pleasant and exhausting about being a we. Personally, and I’d say this likely goes for everyone, I’m ready to just be a me again.

I’ve been filming the exit interviews, or the sterniviews, as I call them because I film the sterner from the duff seat in the middle of the boat. This is an intentional choice. We’re most comfortable there. All we do is paddle and talk, or maybe paddle and not talk. The camera is less invasive when we are in our element, surrounded by the river, all the familiar sounds. We move to our own rhythms, each person’s paddle stroke being as unique as their being. The conversation flows like the current, faster around our outer edges, and more gently as we move inwards.

Though each interview takes its own meanders and bends, the words overlap and compound- we speak about the same things. And only I have had the privilege of hearing these trends. And it is a privilege.

Standing on the levee in Natchez, looking down at the scope of the river, I felt a similar coherence. The eddies gave way to smooth water, the waves smaller from up above. Likewise, each person on our trip has had different struggles, a different journey, but we also tell the same story.

We recently met a few other river travellers, with stories of their own. The Strayers, four Canadians from Montreal, canoed the Illinois River to the Mississippi. We met them the morning we left Vicksburg. They’ve been on the water roughly the same number of days as we have, yet they’ve done half the mileage. They call us Fast Forward. What have their days been filled with? Floating, reading, making elaborate breakfasts. Mmm!

On the same day, we also met the infamous Marsh Barge, a couple of band mates headed south. They began almost a month before us, lost three members to other interests, tossed their canoe, and were gifted a sailboat. Was I jealous? Absolutely.

All three of our groups converged in Natchez, and at Under the Hill bar, we discussed the finer points of river travel. We talked about Lake Winibigoshish, the frigid October snow day, and the Artic Blast, our duff day, when winds were gusting up around 40 mph. We talked about the places we’d stopped and the places we hadn’t. Some of us were still wearing our City Museum wristbands from St. Louis, and again, the consistency of the river echoed through our conversation. Different trips, yes, but the same trip too.

There is something about water that promotes interconnectivity. For example, a few nights ago, we stayed with some hunters near Cat Island, Louisiana. Not only did they open their camp to us, but they also opened up themselves. And how refreshing. So much of our world, the real world, is about barriers and boundaries, about keeping others out, but Dennis welcomed us right in. Leroy made us coffee in the morning, Charlie made us sausage. Small acts, big actions.

Throughout this trip, I’ve noticed it is the small gestures that are the most starkly contrasted with my life in Minneapolis. It’s not that people are unkind, but we, myself included, aren’t necessarily intentionally kind either. The river is a great place for breaking that habit, for shameless sharing. Be that between two people in a tandem canoe, an odd amalgamation of travellers in a dive bar, or around a campfire with compassionate strangers. Go to the water. Go and listen. Go and share. Go and find your we.


Sustenance On The River

As the end of our Paddle Forward expedition nears and the biggest feasting day of the year approaches, food and what I am thankful for is on my mind. For the last 65 days we've been spoiled with a delicious variety of sustenance: donated food from businesses and generous strangers we meet along the river.

This is Martha writing about what it's like to eat with 10 others for 70 days using a portable kitchen. Every day we rotate cook duty: a duo of paddlers set up lunch, cook dinner, pack out next day's lunch, and cook breakfast. The following cook crew is in charge of dishes and cleaning up the kitchen. For breakfast we typically eat oatmeal and every lunch consists of "bread and toppings" meaning tortillas with cheese, summer sausage, rehydrated hummus, and fresh vegetables. Our dinners are creative concoctions most often made with a base of rice or pasta.

The trip began with a ration of 1 bar per person per day (pppd) but that was not enough. Our metabolism levels adjusted to the 8-10 hours of daily paddling, and now our bodies require a range of 1-2 or 4-5 bars pppd. Our pockets carry Clif bars gifted from a friend, Genevieve Caldwell, or calorie-rich bars donated from This Bar Saves Lives. For the first two weeks worth of dinners, Sarah Hamilton of Camp Chow supplied us with easy-to-make dinners consisting of Minnesota wild rice and dehydrated mushrooms. What a treat it was to eat fresh tasting food that only required boiling water and stirring.

At the Hyvee Grocery store in Muscatine, IA, we picked up our first of three food drops that were shipped prior to launching canoes in September. Advice for anyone wanting to travel down the Big Muddy: there are frequent spots along the river to resupply food, and drop shipments aren't necessary. However, thanks to the Just family friend, Ken Beckwith, we purchased bulk dry goods from Sysco that we measured and packaged for shipment.

In St. Louis our friend Joel Tully delivered us a hefty box of gourmet goods that Woodland Foods graciously donated. Since then new flavors of mixed dried berries and fruit filled our bowls of oatmeal, and our bland hummus transformed into a deep purple when we added beet powder. Instead of draining pasta (which is one of the more challenging backcountry cooking tasks out there) we pour in leek, tomato or soy sauce powder to soak up the water. Among our 11 creative cooks, we have yet to eat the same dinner!

I'm off to eat some pasta with venison sausage from last night's hunting friends mixed with rehydrated vegetables and butternut squash powder.

Goodnight from Baton Rouge!


Lights, Bugs, and You

Yesterday, about 40 miles upstream of Natchez, Mississippi we passed the tall, wide, steaming cooling tower of a nuclear power plant and we got to talking about electricity production. As we travel downstream, we pass tree-lined banks and sandy shores which provide critical habitat for critters that live along the river: bald eagles, deer, turkeys, woodpeckers, coyotes, muskrats, dragonflies, snakes, bobcats, insects, beavers, and more. Under the water, there is a wide variety of fish species, as well as mussels, crawfish, and other aquatic life who contribute to the diverse river ecosystem.

One animal species that relies on the Mississippi River is the human. The river's rich biodiversity helps support healthy human life from source to sea. The Mississippi provides drinking water for 18 million people, a shipping route for commodities such as coal and grain, and water for industry. Importantly, many electricity-producing power plants exist along the river. People rely on electricity for a variety of purposes: lighting homes, cooking, charging devices, and lots more. In what ways do you use electricity? Have you experienced a time when electricity did not work or it wasn't available?

There are many ways to create electricity. Throughout our journey we have seen coal and natural gas fired power plants as well as power plants that use nuclear energy. Cooling with water is one step in the process of creating electricity, which is why many power plants are located adjacent to bodies of water. Power plants use water to produce steam, which moves a turbine, and then they dispose of that water by putting them back into lakes or rivers nearby. When the water re-enters the river it is warmer than the river water. The fish and invertebrates (bugs) that live in the water are adapted to specific temperatures. Warm water from the power plants changes the water temperature and therefore interrupts the lives of species that rely on a specific range of water temperatures. Since the food web is interconnected, this affects not only the plants, fish, and invertebrates that live in the water, it also affects the birds that eat the fish, and the animals that eat the birds, and so on. The water temperature increase due to water entering the river from electricity production is harmful to water quality and therefore to all life that depends on the river.

What this means is that you can help protect the plants and animals near your home. Depending on where you live and where your electricity comes from, you help protect the water quality of the Mississippi River, or a different body of water. There are many ways you can conserve electricity: turn off the lights behind you when you leave a room, limit the amount of time the refrigerator or freezer door stays open, turn the water off while brushing your teeth (it requires electricity to run water!), or line dry your clothes rather than in a drying machine. By conserving energy, you are directly protecting the health of the environment around you, and in turn, your own health. What are other ways that you can reduce electricity use? Where does the electricity that supplies your home come from? What about your school? What type of fuel is used to create electricity? Where does that fuel come from? What are ways that energy producers can mitigate the effects of electricity production on water quality?

If you are interested in other ways to conserve energy use, check out the resources at the Minnesota Energy Challenge ( Their mascot, TOLBY (stands for Turn Out Lights Behind You) the firefly, is full of ideas! Also, if you live in Minnesota, he could come and visit your classroom!


Memphis to Natchez: BBQ, windstorms, and dogs named Winnie

November 10th began with a bountiful bowl of oatmeal and peanut butter, a staple breakfast for our crew. We set off from a sandbar only forty miles from Memphis city limits, surrounded by a bright and colorful sunrise. After our month of cold weather, the warm atmosphere was a welcome change.

We paddled most of the day, entering Memphis mid afternoon. We kept our canoes at the Memphis Yacht Club off of Mud Island and were treated to a dock for our canoes, fresh water, and a parking lot to air out and un-sandify our weather beaten tents.

Rick Ferguson, the former president of the St. George's Independent School, met us after our canoes and gear were taken care of. He drove us to his family home in Germantown, Tennessee, where he and his wife treated us to Rendevouz Barbecue. We met up with Bill, a teacher at St. George's, and two of his students who were interested in meeting us. That night we shared our story, enjoyed the fine company of the night, and fully experienced southern hospitality.

After a full night of rest and a lazy 7 am wakeup (we wake up at 4:30 every morning!) Rick drove us to St. George's independent school to meet with two classrooms: an 11th grade Citizenship class and a 12th grade Environmental Science class. We presented our stories and broke into small groups to answer individual student questions. We were all incredibly impressed with St. George's students' maturity and level of critical thinking. They seemed exceptionally college ready. What does college ready mean? What does one need to do to become college ready? If you have any questions YOU would like us to answer, please leave them in the comment section below!

That night, only ten miles outside of Memphis city limits we found a campsite on "Dismal Point"- a sandy sliver of land on the Arkansas side of the river which we had been told would be safe enough for us to camp on.

At 1pm all three tents awoke with a start. High winds from the north were whipping sand at our tents and ripping our tent stakes from the ground. Liz, Nick, and John's tent acted as a buffer for everyone else's tent and, overcome by the stresses of wind, a tent pole snapped and sliced through the rain fly. The crew got to work repairing the tent. Not everyone was able to be so visibly helpful, however - winds were so strong that at least one person had to be in the tent at any given moment or else the tents would fly away!

The whole next day we were windbound and couldn't leave the sandbar. Winds roared down the river at a sustained 25 mph with gusts over 50 mph. This storm was called a "Northern Blast." What is a northern blast? What causes northern blasts? What sorts of information should we have considered before setting up our tents? Why is it difficult to canoe in high winds?

The next morning we woke up to chilly weather and a heavy frost. We were happy to get back in our boats and continue our journey after being held up by the weather, and the cold air helped us paddle hard. We set out for Helena, Arkansas 60 miles downstream. Sixty miles was our most ambitious goal yet and we managed to clock in at 61 miles just before dark. Mad Dog from the Quapaw Canoe Company met us at the Helena boat launch and took us to the Quapaw Canoe Company. Mad Dog showed us around, told us stories about previous river travelers and let us see his beautiful Mississippi River inspired wall murals.

Jordan and Zach, friends of friends, met us later that evening and brought with them the cutest dog we ever did see. To our surprise, they told us she was a stray dog that had taken in to protect from frosts and if we could give her a good home, they would love for us to take her with us. Winnie Helena Barge had a new home: our canoes! We bought her dog food, trained her in necessary commands to keep her safe in the canoe, and gave her plentiful belly rubs. She immediately felt at home and seemed love the canoe.

For the past week we have been putting in between 45 and 55 miles each day. With bright sun and tailwinds each day has felt like a summer weekend with good friends. A couple of days ago we passed into Louisiana though today we are spending a night in Natchez, Mississippi to catch up on blogging, documentary work, and meeting new people. We already met a group of canoers who call themselves The Strayers, two men in a sailboat who call themselves Marsh Barge, and a man and his son who gifted us freshly caught venison and hog. We are continually humbled by the people we meet along the way and can't wait to see what our last week on the river holds!


Transitions of the River

Over the last few weeks I’ve been thinking about the changes in the River between the Upper and Lower Mississippi.  The upper Mississippi is officially defined between the headwaters at Lake Itasca in Northern Minnesota to Cairo, Illinois. South of Cairo, the lower Mississippi section begins and the River continues until the mighty Mississippi reaches the Gulf of Mexico.  However, I like to think of the River in three separate sections based on the differences I’ve noticed while paddling. 

The first of the three sections begins at the headwaters and ends in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  Most of the river in this section is narrow and curves back and forth until it reaches one of the lakes that the River frequently flows through.  The banks are lined with a mixture of lush forests, wild rice, and marshland.  In some sections of the River we noticed eroded banks from the floods each spring.  What is erosion and when does it occur?  Many people in this area interact closely with the river.  Homes are scattered along this entire stretch with a concentration of houses near towns and cities. People interact with the River frequently through recreational boating, hunting, and fishing.  With the large amount of recreation, campsites are frequent and we rarely camped away from designated campsites. 

The second distinction begins in Minneapolis/ St. Paul, Minnesota and ends in St. Louis, Missouri.  Between these cities the Lock and Dam system shapes the River.  The locks and dams create wide-open sections of river that resemble lakes in areas right before the dam.  Why do dams create these open water areas? What is a lock? We noticed many different bird flocks and wildlife gathering in the marshland surrounding the River.  During this part of the River huge bluffs define the banks.  What formed the River bluffs in this area?  While we were paddling this area the fall colors were peaking and we witnessed the brilliant red, orange, and yellow mixture littering the steep cliffs.  Small river towns were scattered steadily throughout this area.  It was during this section we first experienced below freezing temperatures, snow, and bitterly cold winds. 

The third and final section begins in St. Louis and continues into the area we are currently paddling.  The two biggest changes in the River at St. Louis are the increased barge traffic and the increased size of the River.  This is where I started feeling like an ant on a sidewalk, tiny next to the huge barge tows, sometimes with up to 42 barges on one tow, flowing on a river more than a mile wide at times.  The shoreline is strewn with sandbars, wing dams, and sides fortified with rock.  The landscape and foliage has also changed.  The area is more flat and the foliage is young and less dense.  Towns along the river are less frequent. There are levees, or walls, built high along the banks to prevent flooding, so unlike the earlier sections of the River, most settlements along the river sit further back and out of sight. Houses are far less common than they were north of St. Louis.  Camping has transitioned to mostly sandbars or other available land next to the River.   

 As we experience the many physical changes of the River, we also experience changes within the group and ourselves.  The warm weather, excitement, and familiarity of the landscape in the beginning of the trip kept spirits high and positive.  As we transitioned out of Minnesota we stopped counting days and time seemed to slow down as we lost ourselves in Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Missouri.  It was during this section we struggled most with cold weather challenging our trip endurance.  During the final leg of the trip we have settled into our systems and routines as a group, leaving time for personal reflection during the many hours paddling.  Have you ever experienced transitions in your life?  How were you affected by these transitions?

-Liz Just

Why Adventure?

Hello everyone! The last week has been a whirlwind. We made it to Memphis where we ate southern BBQ and connected with one of our River Ambassador schools. More about that on tomorrow's blog! We left Helena, AR this morning and we hope to make it to Vicksburg, MS by Monday. Still on for a NOLA arrival before Thanksgiving.

I've been thinking lately about why people go on long expeditions. Trips like ours seem very romantic: we travel by our own power, get to watch the sun rise and set, and totally immerse ourselves in nature. All of that is true, but people rarely talk about the small, personal struggles of going on an expedition. If you're lucky, you'll get to shower three or four times over the course of several months. Between hygiene, hunger, sun blisters or frozen fingers, there is little I can truthfully say to convince you that going on an expedition is a wonderful, fun experience. Do you want to spend your next vacation wondering if your cheese is moldy or if your back will ever stop hurting from sitting in a boat all day?

If expeditions are so uncomfortable then why am I here right now blogging on my phone in the middle of a canoe on the Mississippi River? Why did I want to do this trip in the first place? The reasons are subjective to each individual, but I will give you a glimpse into why I have gone and will continue to go on long adventures.

First, a quick background! Hi, I'm Natalie. I'm from Miami, FL, I like to dress up as a giant dog, I express my feelings through music and wrestling, and I love a healthy dose of competition. I started going on canoe trips when I was 15 through YMCA Camp Menogyn because I was burnt out from arts school and needed to discover other hobbies and interests besides music. So began my love for outdoor adventuring! I went on a series of trips that culminated in a 50-day canoe trip in the arctic tundra with 6 other women, one of whom is currently on this trip (Hi, Lee!). Through Menogyn I met my good friend Ann Raiho, who attended St. Olaf College with me and proved to be a wonderful partner in crime. As graduation neared, Ann and I felt the usual pressure to get jobs and become "successful" young adults. As with many life transitions, I experienced anxiety over where to go and what to do. Was I supposed to have my life figured out by age 22? No way. But the pressure was there. Ann approached me one day with a book in hand and said, "Read this, we should do it." It was Erik Sevareid's book, "Canoeing With the Cree", in which he recounts his paddling journey from Minneapolis to the Hudson Bay. Sold, count me in. Sounds awesome. I wanted to go on that trip because I had very little direction in life and maybe, just maybe, some epiphany would fall from the heavens and smack me in the face while I was paddling north. I was searching for something that I could not articulate at the time. On that trip I learned how to see an idea to action and share my passion for the outdoors with those around me. That trip was the start of Wild River Academy and led to this Paddle Forward adventure. But that's a different story!

One thing I noticed/notice while on trail is that uncomfortable situations push me to grow as a woman/human being/alien robot in disguise. My white, middle-class bubble greatly values comfort. And why not? Comfort is great. I love a hot shower and a warm bed just as much as the next person, but if we are always comfortable then how do we grow to understand ourselves, our limits, our weaknesses and strengths? Living outdoors has taught me that I can overcome physical and emotional challenges and that I have to be adaptable because things don't always go as planned. These are great life skills to have. It is important for me to seek out uncomfortable or unfamiliar situations to grow fully and understand more about myself, other people, and my environment. The lessons that I learn on trail are applicable to 'real life' in that they encourage me to be the strong, knowledgeable, happy person that I strive to be.

In addition to growing as an individual through outdoor experiences, I also learn a lot about my big-picture goals. Before I got into a canoe to paddle down to New Orleans I thought, "Alright trip, show me something!" Then I paddled for a week. Then a month. Time went by and, without intentionally thinking about my life, I one day came to several life conclusions: I want to start a semester school. I'm great at marketing and communications, maybe I belong in an administrative role. I just might be an introvert. Without fail, every time I step away from my life to paddle for a few months I reach a point of realization. It doesn't happen for everyone, but a lot of my co-expeditioners have experienced the same thing. They sit in the canoe and after weeks of monotonous paddling they say, "I just learned this about myself."

I realized what I had gotten out of the trip and how to communicate those lessons and realizations to those around me about two weeks ago. Now I am ready to return home with my newfound knowledge. I am at peace with myself, this journey, and our mission. I hold an understanding that I did not possess before and I am no longer searching, but simply enjoying the last leg of this life-changing adventure.

I could not have predicted what life lessons I would learn on this expedition before departing, and I'm sure there are some realizations that I have yet to discover. I came on this adventure and will continue to go on adventures because they mold me into a better, more understanding and capable person. Thanks to the skills I acquired through outdoor expeditions, I feel well-equipped with the confidence and awesome life skills necessary to make a difference in this world!

What's your story? Can you think of an experience that pushed you to grow and realize something about yourself?


Keokuk Dam- Kentucky!

Another state line crossed which means Paddle Forward is one state closer to New Orleans! After our fantastic welcome and stay in Montrose, IA the crew, in addition to our friend and guest paddler Kristen Schulte, once again took to the water and paddled to lock and dam no. 19 which we had been told had up to a 58ft drop. In actuality it was only a 38ft drop which in our eyes was no less impressive.  We entered the 1200ft long chamber to the cheers of our many friends from Montrose who had come to watch us lock through. Usually, we are thrown 12-20ft long lines to hold as we are lowered into the lock but in no. 19 we were told to hold on to a dropping pin which lowers the 38ft with us to the bottom. The great doors lifted up out of the water and we began to sink. It felt a bit like the trash compactor in Star Wars… After the lock we found a lovely island to camp on, built a fire and slept.



After a full day of paddling we got to Quincy, IL where we stayed in a marina not far off the main channel. It was a great early birthday present for Nick whose birthday was the following day. The better present though came the next day in Hannibal, MO. While all the other paddlers found a local haunt for dinner, Anna and Erika walked about the town, white washing Tom Sawyer’s fence, seeing his old house and meeting a few of Hannibal’s residents.  They ran across the Hannibal History Museum put on by Lisa and Ken Marks of Hannibal. After much deliberation, Anna and Erika decided to go on the 7pm “Haunted Hannibal Trolly Tour”.  It was a fun filled, spooky evening learning about all the haunted places in Hannibal. If you are ever passing through, I would definitely recommend that you stop in to the museum! The tour ended with Lisa Marks, our tour guide and coincidentally, the caretaker of one of Hannibal’s many mansions, offering to let 11 strangers stay in Cliffside Mansion. (It wasn’t haunted, by the way) We gratefully accepted! Cliffside is a 9-bedroom, 6-bathroom mansion complete with servants’ quarters and original chandeliers. Hannibal became a huge lumber city in the early 19th century because of the transport and power the Mississippi River provided for the industry.

We found our “campsite” the next night after paddling roughly 42 miles. We camped at a boat launch in less than ideal conditions but were rewarded with breakfast in the morning from John’s parents on their drive, moving from Tennessee to Minnesota. With two locks to paddle and 44 miles ahead of us for the day we paddled hard through beautiful foggy mist making the river seem like a white wonderland. After paddling through lock and dam. No. 27 we pulled out at our home for the night, the Living Lands and Water’s Garbage Barge. The Barge is a tow of four barges, 3 for garbage and one that has been transformed into a modern living space and floating classroom. Living Lands and Waters is an organization that travels up and down the River and works with communities and school groups to collect trash and educate people about the river. The next morning we got a chance to talk with Kim from the Army Corps. of Engineers at the National Great Rivers Museum in Alton, IL. We also had the privilege of a tour of the Melvin Price Lock and Dam. We then headed back to our boats and paddled thirteen miles in the pouring rain to meet up with Big Muddy Mike (Michael F. Clark) and fellow St. Louis paddlers Perry and Dave. We were invited to stay with Big Muddy who is in the process of establishing a bed and breakfast for peddlers and paddlers along the Great River Road and the Mighty River. Self-proclaimed “river angel” he wants to make the river more accessible for small craft paddlers.

We stayed in St. Louis for two nights, replenishing on supplies and picking up boxes and gear with the help of Joel Tully, our gracious food drop collector. We also got to explore the St. Louis City Museum, which we all highly recommend if you are ever in St. Louis!

We said goodbye to Big Muddy Mike and St. Louis and for the next few days made serious miles to Cape Girardeau, MO, where we were welcomed into a “friends-giving” dinner night by Sarah Schulte, sister of guest paddler Kristen, and her friends Abbie, Will, and Joann. We greatly enjoyed the excellent food and even better company.

The next night, November 5, we arrived in the dark at the confluence of two mighty American Rivers: the Ohio and the Mississippi located in Cairo, IL. Since then we have been averaging ~43 miles per day blasting through New Madrid and Caruthersville, MO and countless beautiful islands and sandbars. At this point, if we maintain a speed of 40 miles per day we will reach New Orleans by November, 26th!

‘Til the next time!

Paddle Forward

Written by: Erika Gotcher


Island camping in Keokuk. 

Island camping in Keokuk. 

At the Gateway to the West.

At the Gateway to the West.

Paddling in the white mist.

Paddling in the white mist.

Cliffside Mansion in Hannibal, MO.

Cliffside Mansion in Hannibal, MO.

Hunting and the Mississippi

Duck hunters and people fishing have been a common sight for us throughout the trip. As a hunter myself, I understand the special connection hunters have towards the river. This connection creates an understanding and a respect for conservation and resources management. Deer hunting is regulated by the Department of Natural Resources in each state. Regulations are set to limit the number of animals that can be taken in a season, as well as the number of hunters. Like all resources, hunting must be regulated to avoid the possibility for over hunting and herd extinction.

Activity: Each state's department of natural resources creates a hunting and trapping guidelines book. Find this book and research the guidelines. Does anything surprise you in the book?

My hunting experience has always held an emphasis on safety and respect for the animal being hunted. Through hunting I have explored vast expanses of wilderness in an effort to better understand my quarry. I learned patience by sitting motionless for days on end in silent anticipation for the animal I hunt. While paddling I often think of these moments as I notice the hunters using the water. Luckily, large tracts of public land along the Mississippi River watershed allow for accessible hunting.

What are your thoughts on the hunting and conservation relationship? In what ways do hunters and conservationist seek the same goal and how might they vary?

Do you hunt or know anyone that hunts? What do you, or those you know, like about hunting?

Burlington to Montrose: Aldo Leopold, Buttons

On October 23 we had planned to paddle five miles past there, but the cold weather forced us to call it a day, and we camped at Lock and Dam 18. The next morning we were greeted by Steve Brower and Jerry, who both work with the Leopold Heritage Group, which is based out of Leopold’s boyhood home in Burlington, Iowa. Steve is a landscape architect who specializes in native landscape recovery and restoration and created an outdoor classroom with the Aldo Leopold Middle School. Both Aldo Leopold experts, they shared their knowledge and insight about this important nature writer.  Who is Aldo Leopold? What is his most famous work? Can you explain the concept of “land ethic?”

Steve has done extensive research on nature writers; he explained that there are certain topics that they all seem to address. For example, the concept of being surprised by nature is a common theme in creating narratives about nature. He believes that it is important for children and people of all ages to have a surprise experience in nature. He is concerned that if we do not continue to protect, invest in, and create natural areas – especially within urban areas – there will be fewer places and opportunities for these formative moments to occur. Have you ever experienced a moment of surprise and wonder in nature? What happened? How did you feel? How do you define nature?

We said farewell and paddled on to Montrose. It was a long ways away, and the winds slowed us down more than we expected. The sun set and we were still five miles out. We do not like to paddle at night because it is hard for barges to see us, and it is hard for us to see hazards such as logs in the water. We stayed together and put our headlamps on. A group in Montrose who was hosting us said they would put their car headlights on and shine them towards the river. We saw the lights in the distance and headed their way.

We were greeted by a large group as we pulled up. It was exciting and heartwarming to be welcomed by so many new and friendly faces. We were doubly grateful to have an indoor place to rest for the night when we stopped paddling and felt the cold set in. Among the group were four students and their science teacher from town—real live River Ambassadors! They showed us the projects their class had done related to the Mississippi River and where they live. They had written poems, stories, and drawn pictures, and it was very impressive!

What could be better after a long, cold day of paddling than to come inside to friendly folks and a hot-cooked meal? Mary Sue, Mary, Marla, Roger, and a group of friends served us barbecue steak sandwiches, hot soup, and hot chocolate, which we ate enthusiastically as we met our new friends. After dinner, Jim taught us about the history of button production in Montrose. There used to be a button factory in town that carved buttons out of mussel shells. This was a major industry in town, but the factory shut down in the 1960s when plastic replaced mussel shells as the preferred material for buttons because it was cheaper to produce.

After a warm night in the Heritage Center, Joyce came to teach us about the turtle traps she makes. Joyce uses nylon thread and D-shaped hoops to create good traps. The nylon is then coated in tar to make it stronger. Recreational and commercial trappers mostly catch turtles for their meat. The group was then loaded up on a trailer and taken around the community. We saw the old chapel, the volunteer fire station, and the largest sassafras tree in the state of Iowa! The group was proud of their community, and it was a delight to hear about all of the work and time they are investing in it.


Something that we were very impressed with was the way the community creatively used resources they already had on hand to make their town a better place to live. For example, we stayed in the Heritage Center in town, which used to be a fertilizer warehouse and was now a community gathering space. The fountain outside the center was made from large concrete tubs that used to hold chemicals from the fertilizer production. Outside of the library was a beautiful statue carved into the trunk of an old tree that was no longer standing. In one of the front yards we saw, someone had buried an old speedboat and was using it as a sandbox. How clever! When is a time you found a new use for something old? How did you repurpose it?

After a stop at the local grocery store, we packed up the boats, said farewell to our friends, and pointed our vessels downstream.


The statue carved out of an old tree in front of the Montrose library

The statue carved out of an old tree in front of the Montrose library

Montrose Group Photo.JPG

How A Lock Works

Watch this video of our friend, Max Musselman (great name, eh?), tell you about how a lock works:

Why are dams built on the Mississippi River? How come dams are only on the Upper Mississippi (MN, WI, IL, IA, MO) and not on the Lower Mississippi? Does a dam impact fish migration, and if so how? What dangers do you think small boats such as canoes and sailboats face while going through a lock?

Poison hemlock mystery

Hi friends! We stopped for lunch yesterday about 10 miles outside of Montrose, Iowa, where we had a warm and delightful time with our new friends in town (stay tuned for an update about our time there!) We encountered this plant growing in a rocky area near the edge of the river. It looks like parsley and the roots smelled a little bit like mint. We learned before we left on our trip that poison hemlock, which is a deadly plant if eaten, resembles parsley--hence its nickname "fool's parsley."

Can you help us solve the mystery? Do you think this plant is poison hemlock? What would have happened if we had eaten it? Why is it important to identify plants you find growing wild before you eat them? Do you know anyone who eats wild plants, or have you ever eaten food that you picked yourself?

What historical significance does poison hemlock have? Which famous philosopher died from eating this plant? Why did he eat it if he knew it was poisonous?


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