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Sports editor

Les Winkeler is sports editor and outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan.

For 90 minutes last week, eight students and staff members from Augsburg University regaled me with tales of their 64 days on the Mississippi River.

The half-dozen students and two staff members are participating in a class that puts them on the Mississippi for 100 days. They were able to visit Carbondale last week because dangerously high flood waters on the river south of St. Louis forced them to take a several-day hiatus from their quest.

These weren’t hardened outdoorsmen and outdoorswomen. Some of them admitted they had never been camping prior to the expedition. Yet, here they were, battling one of the largest rivers in the world, rain, tornadoes and themselves.

Yes, themselves. I’m not talking social dynamics within the group. I’m talking introspection.

The best outdoor/wildlife experiences force an individual to look inward. That’s why the words of John Muir are so compelling. That’s why the observations made by Henry David Thoreau are still relevant today.

When asked about the things they learned, the students talked about the way they dealt with stress. They talked about the decisions they were forced to make under duress when dealing with the dangerously powerful waters of the Mississippi River. They even talked about the mundane hardships created by the ubiquitous presence of mud and sand.

And, when they talked about their experiences, the words did not leap from their mouths. They spoke thoughtfully, slowly, as if searching the inner reaches of their souls to find the words that would put their thoughts, their experiences into the proper context.

One of the common threads exposed during the conversation is that a deep bond had formed between the group. They talked of sharing duties of cooking, setting up campsites. They talked of the shared stench of camping with a group of unwashed human beings who had spent a day battling the Mississippi River.

They talked about how they had learned to trust each other. They talked about seeing growth in themselves and in their fellow travelers. They talked about gaining perspective for the early explorers of the Mississippi River, adventurers who couldn’t venture into town and re-provision at Kroger or Aldi’s.

Yet, behind the serious words their remained an irrepressible joy, that sense of adventure that seems deeply imprinted into the human psyche. There was also an undeniable sense of pride that they had undertaken this journey and were thriving, personally and as a class.

Buried just beneath the seriousness were wide smiles that eloquently conveyed how much fun they were having. Each story of personal and group enrichment was followed by a tale of raucous times around the campfire.

One of the students even pulled out a guitar and the group serenaded the newsroom with a couple of their campfire staples.

When the students left the room I was keenly aware that the visit ended too soon. They left me wanting to hear more of their adventures, to share in their stories and insights. I wanted to join their campfire and listen to the music.

Those young men and women made me feel both proud and hopeful for their generation. Their company refreshed my soul. And, as they piled back into their van, I also realized I envied them.

Bon voyage!

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LES WINKELER is the outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at les.winkeler@thesouthern.com, or call 618-351-5088 / On Twitter @LesWinkeler.

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