Nineteen young people, mostly staff members and students from Augsburg University in Minneapolis, Minnesota, have pitted themselves against the Mississippi River for 100 days.
Their goal is to reach Memphis, more or less. In the meantime the students will receive 16-19 credit hours for completing River Semester, an accredited course at Augsburg. While traveling the river the students are conducting scientific tests on water quality and turbidity. They are learning the history of the river and its environs.
And, probably more than anything: They are learning about themselves. Several of the students and a pair of instructors visited Carbondale recently.
“We have a lot of experiential education,” said Ann Koller, one of the expedition leaders. “We’re not just learning in a classroom. We’re learning out where that study is. It’s a really great way to learn, not just what we’re learning in classes, but life in general. There is a lot of interaction and engagement with deeper learning outside a book or text.”
It took more than 70 days for the group to reach St. Louis. Flooding caused the group to pull off the river for several days. They are traveling in 24-foot Voyageur canoes. The middle seats have been removed to allow for more storage — carrying tents, food and other necessities.
The group has survived heavy rains and cold weather. At one point they had to evacuate their campground before it was hit by 80-mile-per-hour winds.
“I just feel like you can’t do 100 days in the wilderness, or even the side country, without being forever changed,” said Cory Dack, the second expedition leader. “It really challenges you. It really forces you to hold up a mirror in front of yourself to see who you are. We have struggled through some really difficult times together.
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.
“That kind of experience is something you take with you no matter what you end up doing with the rest of your life. You know you did this incredibly challenging and unique thing and you did it while living with, working and loving alongside 18 other people. It shows you what you’re made of.”
In between the remarkable glimpses of nature — an eagle snatching a fish from the Mississippi, a fox following their canoes on the river bank, or the power of thunderstorms, the students find themselves learning invaluable life lessons.
“Going into this I really didn’t know what to expect,” said Demey Everett. “It was an adventure that they marketed to our campus. I was like, ‘You know, I love biology. I’m a bio major, and being out in the field 100 days sounds amazing.’ So going into it people asked me, ‘How are you going to eat food?’ I’d say, ‘I have no idea.’ Now, we’ve figured it out.
“There are other things like, ‘How are you going to stay warm?’ Well, we figured that out too. We sleep four to a tent, where in the warm weather we sleep three to a tent. I just love the outdoors. It was just like I’ll try this adventure out.”
“Being on this trip allows us to see the ways we live, both in our own lives and as a society and in our communities, in a totally new way,” added Liam DelMain. “I think something, living in a community the way we do on the river is like really, really rare in our society. We’re really isolated easily for others and we value independence, and being able to do everything yourself. We forget it’s really wonderful and special and powerful to depend on people around you. It’s an amazing feeling to have that kind of cooperation.”
And, sometimes the lessons are more mundane, as simple as how a person deals with stress.
“I’ve learned that I don’t do it in necessarily the most healthy ways,” said Emile Mongiat. “But, I feel like as soon as I go back I am going to work on dealing with stress and anxiety in a better way. It’s also just like, I don’t know, it’s just a completely different way of life. We are really roughing it. We really, really are. It’s just like 100 days of sand and mud and anger towards the sand and the mud.”
Although the original goal was to reach Memphis, the students will leave the river after 100 days.
“The goal is to paddle for 100 days and wherever we get to, we get to, with the hopeful intention of getting to Memphis,” Koller said.