The robot attached to our boat is reminiscent of science fiction. People we pass on the shore smile quizzically and ask questions. A few recognize it and know it’s exact purpose and yell it as we paddle past, others yell a question and we try and yell back clearly before the current and wind obscure our words. We stop when we have time. When our course through the mighty river turns again to the appearance of untouched wilderness, the eagles, herons, otters and beavers pay the odd contraption with the wary indifference they would to an old canoe.
The device in question is a Google Trekker camera, similar to the one that put your house or place of work on Google street view and it sits on top of a six foot aluminum tower on one of our twenty foot canoes. Two red pontoons for stability jut out from the side to complete the steampunk design. For the first three days of the trek the machete was in our hand more often than a paddle as this mighty river began its infant course.
My team is eight recent graduates from the University of Puget Sound and I am, for lack of a better word their professor. We are Google street viewing the length of the Mississippi under human power among other life goals. We will also perform the longest water sampling transact of a river that has yet been done, according to the scientists we are collecting samples for at Louisiana State University and the University of Washington in order to test the microbial and nutrient population. We are also doing a plastics study for a scientist at the University of Puget Sound in addition to our already extensive battery of tests. And how could I forget the school visits at dozens of schools along the river and the daily content we are creating for students.
The answer to all those questions is yes and no. In some places the river is polluted, in others pristine. A few rapids are still visible, nothing big as most of the huge ones are hidden by almost a century and a half of river engineering that makes farming and industry possible, but comes with many unintended consequences. About 50 people a year make the journey down the river under human power. If you go back to the massive pre Columbian civilizations that built pyramids outside of St. Louis, it might be millions that have traveled the river.
It’s their first time doing anything like this and they are sharing it as part of the process. They are here because they took a class put together through a partnership with the University of Puget Sound and OAR Northwest, the nonprofit organization my friends and I created over ten years ago to participate in a rowing race across the North Atlantic. OARNorthwest has since morphed into an adventure education organization with the mission of getting adventure in the classroom. The above science and educational outreach is how we do it. We are creating a yearly trip down the Mississippi River because of its broad relevance to the country, and creating a regular trip each year makes a powerful teaching tool, like adventure, more usable to teachers because of its happening year to year.
Of my eight students, four are in the field and four are back on shore, creating an administrative part of the organization that has never been a part of our adventures before, in order to communicate to the classrooms more effectively. It’s a tall order and the learning in the first month has been huge, and it feels like we are just about to hit our stride on this 100 day journey.