Wild River Academy group paddling Mississippi to explore towns’ connection to the river

In the first week of their Mississippi River paddling odyssey, Martha Brummitt, left, and Eric Immler enjoy a sunny day. The group includes 11 people and five boats, which means that every day one person doesn’t paddle. That member sits in the “duffing” spot, recording the group’s experiences.

In the first week of their Mississippi River paddling odyssey, Martha Brummitt, left, and Eric Immler enjoy a sunny day. The group includes 11 people and five boats, which means that every day one person doesn’t paddle. That member sits in the “duffing” spot, recording the group’s experiences.

Partnering with educators while making documentary

by Jennie ZeitlerStaff Writer

The Mississippi River rises in northern Minnesota and meanders southward over 2,530 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. Its watershed drains all or parts of 31 states and two Canadian provinces.

“Mississippi River towns are comely, clean, well-built, pleasing to the eye and cheering to the spirit,” said Mark Twain in his book, “Life on the Mississippi.”

Eleven people in their 20s are exploring all 2,530 miles of the Mississippi and the towns and residents along the way in a quest to find out how people relate to the river.

The non-profit Wild River Academy in the Twin Cities is calling its trip “Paddle Forward.” The vision for the trip is to create a video documentary about watershed communities and their relationship to the river.

To do this, the group is asking mayors, park rangers, paddling clubs, and community members one simple question: “How do you interact with the Mississippi River?”

There is a wide range of technology tucked away in the group’s canoes so they can communicate with people following the trip. They use video cameras, phones, four GoPro cameras, laptops, a MiFi device (portable WiFi) and a Voltaic solar charger.

Many of the group’s members hail from other states such as North Carolina, Tennessee and Maine. Some connected with each other during their college years. All were drawn to Minnesota because of wilderness opportunities and the desire to explore new places.

“We’re a web of people,” said Natalie Warren. “Everyone on this trip knows each other in different ways.”

The Wild River Academy group gathers for a moment with their night’s hostess before putting their canoes in the water for the day. Pictured are front row (from left): Lee Vue and Sami Pfeffer. Second row: Natalie Warren. Third row: Martha Brummitt and Erika Gotcher. Fourth row: Liz Just and Eric Immler. Fifth row: Sarah Schaefer and Anna Johnson. Sixth row: hostess Larene Hark and John Hartzheim. Seventh row: Nick Ryan.

The Wild River Academy group gathers for a moment with their night’s hostess before putting their canoes in the water for the day. Pictured are front row (from left): Lee Vue and Sami Pfeffer. Second row: Natalie Warren. Third row: Martha Brummitt and Erika Gotcher. Fourth row: Liz Just and Eric Immler. Fifth row: Sarah Schaefer and Anna Johnson. Sixth row: hostess Larene Hark and John Hartzheim. Seventh row: Nick Ryan.

From a group of natural leaders with quite diverse backgrounds, interests and talents, Warren stands out as the creator of Wild River. She grew up in Florida and went to the New World School of the Arts for saxophone performance. She came to a wilderness camp in Minnesota in 2005 and fell in love with the wilderness. She earned an environmental studies degree at St. Olaf College in Northfield.

In 2011, she and another outdoor enthusiast were the first two women to paddle 2,000 miles from Minneapolis to Hudson Bay, following Eric Sevareid’s route from “Canoeing With the Cree.”

Wild River Academy was established to provide a tangible way of sharing wilderness experiences with those who don’t have that opportunity. Warren has led more than 11 canoe trips on the Minnesota River this year.

Warren, Anna Johnson and Nick Ryan have been building that watershed education program for the last year, meeting up with naturalists and learning about communities along the river.

“We have a school bus that was donated by the Mankato school district, which we retrofitted to be a travelling watershed academy,” Warren said.

This trip on the Mississippi was set up to be an adventure learning trip, with many classrooms following the group’s progress.

“The students are not actually on the trip, but they are gaining knowledge through our experiences,” said Warren.

Former Washington, D.C. high school English teacher Sarah Schaefer wrote curriculum for teachers to use.

“Not everyone can access the world around them,” she said. “It was really important to partner with schools, making curriculum easily accessible. Students can learn really practical things about a resource millions of people depend on — the Mississippi River and water in general.”

Schaefer sourced a lot of public material in her curriculum, making it easy for a seventh-grade biology teacher or an elementary teacher to look online for available information.

Liz Just is the trip’s fundraising director. Major sponsors are Woodland Foods, Laticrete, Center for Energy and Environment, Camp Chow, The Wedge Natural Foods Coop and Black Bear Bakery.

Johnson did the grant writing. Martha Brummitt is the food coordinator.

Nick Ryan, left, and Liz Just prepare to put the first canoe in the water for the day.

Nick Ryan, left, and Liz Just prepare to put the first canoe in the water for the day.

Videographer Sami Pfeffer is coordinating the making of the documentary. She and other group members film conversations with people they meet along the way.

“We ask permission to film part of a conversation,” she said. “One of our goals is to try to minimize discomfort of the people we interview.”

The documentary plan is “very loose” and has already been changed in just the first two weeks of what will be a three-month trip.

The group is camping along the way and staying at private homes when the opportunity presents itself.

They heard that an area Department of Natural Resources employee’s mother lives on the river in Rice and were welcomed to spend the night with her.

“It’s been a delightful experience,” said Larene Hark. “They are impressive.”

“It’s really exciting and also humbling how many people are following us,” Schaefer said. “It’s nice to be part of a community created around this adventure.”

While this trip on the Mississippi is Wild River’s longest trip yet, “We hope to do the Ohio River next year,” Warren said.

More information about the diverse backgrounds and experiences of the group members can be found on the Paddle Forward website at www.paddle4ward.com.

Information about Wild River Academy can be found at www.wildriveracademy.com.

The group members encourage those living along the Mississippi to tell what the river means to them. People may email the group at paddle@wildriveracademy.com.

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