- Ricky Taylor uses a selfie stick to document the moment, as Augsburg College students embark on a semester of study on the Mississippi River, beginning their paddle from St. Paul to New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico, on Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2015. (Pioneer Press: Scott Takushi)
- Augsburg College students, Professor Joe Underhill in the stern, embark on a semester of study on the Mississippi River in St. Paul. At semester's end, they'll be in New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. They will study, research and live on the river. (Pioneer Press: Scott Takushi)
Never mind studying abroad; a dozen Augsburg College students are spending the fall semester studying aboard.
Alongside two professors and two guides, the students pushed off from St. Paul’s Harriet Island on Tuesday for their first day of classes on and along the Mississippi River. They’ll paddle four canoes to St. Louis, bus to northern Mississippi and then get back in the water to complete the journey to the Gulf Mexico.
They’ll take trains back to the Twin Cities, where final projects are due Dec. 15.
“It’s literally the trip of a lifetime, ” said Izzie Smith, a sophomore environmental science major who plans to teach elementary school.
Professor Joe Underhill began dreaming about a semester on the river when he joined the Augsburg faculty 15 years ago. He was surprised to learn Twin Cities colleges weren’t turning the river into a classroom.
What began as a one-day lesson grew into study trips of three, five, seven and 10 days.
“Every time we got further down the river, we thought, ‘Why are we stopping?’ ” he said.
Serious planning for a 1, 800-mile journey took about three years, Underhill said. He initially pitched it for biology and environmental studies majors, but the final group has students studying art, film and more.
“Nobody’s studying the same thing” during the trip, he said, but each will earn a full semester’s credits toward graduation in a variety of disciplines.
Smith, who worked for years at Boundary Waters summer camps, was among the first to sign up last fall for the first-ever River Semester. She spent the summer reading three memoirs from folks who’ve paddled the length of the river. Her research will involve recording the sounds of the river itself and interviewing those who live along the shore.
Ricky Taylor, a junior from Merrill, Wis., studying film and graphic design, will wear a GoPro camera to record a full-length documentary of the trip. He grew up listening to stories of people paddling the Mississippi, and he has traveled to Alaska and made several trips to the Boundary Waters.
“This is something I’ve been preparing for my whole life and didn’t even know it, ” he said.
Students will get help from two guides with Wilderness Inquiry, a Minneapolis nonprofit that works to connect students to the river. Program director Chad Dayton called the Mississippi “one of the world’s coolest classrooms.”
Christopher Dunham, a 27-year-old guide, paddled the Current River in the Ozarks during college, so he appreciates the value of place-based learning. His goals are to keep enough drinking water on hand and to build leaders out of the Augsburg students.
“My hope is that a month into it, it’s like I’m not even there, ” he said.
Those embarking Tuesday agreed their greatest challenges along the way are likely to come from within the flotilla. They’ll rotate paddle partners among the four canoes, partly to minimize interpersonal conflict.
Underhill said the group will be in no hurry to reach the Gulf, never paddling more than 80 miles a week. But the itinerary is packed. Students will learn about race relations and social justice in St. Louis, bird banding in the bayou and marine research in the Gulf.
And while each student has a personalized curriculum, much of what takes place in the river classroom will be out of their control.