The analysis phase is just beginning.

I have been back in Chicago for a week now. I want to extend a special thank you to all of the people who extended their kindness to our team along the way. Your help was appreciated more than you can know.

If you have been following the blog you will notice that some rearranging has been done. All of the posts from the river are now in chronological order. If you are looking for the most recent posts, scroll down towards the bottom of the page.

If you would like to see more pictures from the river, check out the link to the right for a photo slide show of the expedition.

If you have a question or just want to say hi, please leave a comment on the blog.

Day 1: St. Louis, Missouri

Today we will be heading to St. Louis with our kayaks and all of our equipment. Tomorrow we will get in the water and begin paddling the 1034 miles to New Orleans!

If you have been following the national news at all you have probably heard that the upper Midwest is experiencing some of the worst flooding in fifteen years. As a result the upper Mississippi is at near record water levels in many places. A 250 mile section of the river north of Clarksville Missouri has been shut down to all river traffic including commercial barges. At St. Louis the river is already 4.72 feet above flood level and is predicted to be a full 9 feet above flood level by Saturday. This will greatly affect our trip. Navigation will be challenging because many of the low lying areas on the navigation charts will now be underwater. The fast moving current will allow us to make more miles each day but will make maneuvering the kayaks more challenging. This afternoon when we arrive in St. Louis we will assess the paddling conditions. Wish us luck!


Day 1: Slow Start

We found the perfect put in point. In St. Louis on the river bank 300 feet north of the Arch, there are a set of sandstone stairs that lead down the grassy river bank to the road running along the river. The major flood conditions of the swollen river had brought the waters up to a level where they were completely covering the road and were lapping at the base of the wide lower stairs. The thick stone railing of the staircase curved at its lower section and provided a pocket of sheltered water to enter the river. Street signs standing in the water framed our route like colorful channel markers. In the background the Arch stood proudly gleaming. This was a spot worthy of embarking on a great adventure.

Despite standing at the perfect put in point with our gear at the ready, as we looked out at the river we briefly reconsidered our intentions to put in at St. Louis. The mid channel current of the river was whipping by at around 8 miles per hour. That kind of velocity in itself is not alarming but as you watch dozens of full sized cottonwood tree more than 40 feet in length and 2 feet in diameter, some complete with massive roots attached, being hurled along at that speed and occasionally twirled like bathtub toys by small eddies, it makes you consider the insignificant size and weight of a kayak. Patrick, Sarah and I all have experience kayaking in the ocean, on the Great Lakes and on different rivers and are all confident paddlers. Staring at the spectacle of the Lower Mississippi in the midst of a historic flood stage was humbling to say the least. For the sake of my parents and Patrick’s wife Molly, who stood looking on and who all had graciously volunteered to deliver our team and our gear to St. Louis, we tried to down play any doubts that we were having as we decided that the flood conditions, although warranting serious caution, were within our combined ability levels and decided to stick to our decision to begin paddling in St. Louis.

We began assembling the kayaks and loading the food and gear. After nearly three hours of preparations on the sandstone steps under an increasingly hot sun. We were nearly reading to say our good byes and put our boats in the water. At that moment a man who worked for the National Park Service and carried a badge but no gun walked down the steps and delivered news we had been hoping not to hear. “You aren’t planning to launch those kayaks are you?” This was a ridiculous question given that we were loading two kayaks about 5 feet from the waters edge. We had no response. So he quickly followed his opening line with “The River is closed to all recreational vehicles as far South as the Jefferson Barracks Bridge.” We offered a few weak dejected looks of disappointment but the man made it clear that he would be watching us until we moved to haul the gear and the boats away from the river. We strapped the boats to the roof of my parents’ car and headed for the Plattin Rock Boat Club marked on the nautical charts as 33 miles South of St. Louis and just south of the Jefferson Barracks Bridge.

Day 2: Southern Hospitality, Crystal City, MO to Chester, IL (41 river miles)

When we arrived yesterday at the Plattin Rock Boat Club, we had no idea what to expect. What we found was a river spilling over its banks by nearly a quarter mile and a small town boat club deeply in love with the river and very supportive of our trip. After being kicked off of the steps of the Arch in St. Louis, we were a bit wary of asking permission to launch our boats. We timidly approached an older man named Lou who stood fishing on the grassy knoll that was being slowly swallowed up by the rising water of the river. He immediately told me that he thought we were crazy and that the river was much too dangerous for paddling at the moment; his biggest concern was that with the banks of the river nearly 6 to 10 feet underwater, we would only be able to stop for camp or even a brief rest at flooded boat ramps where we would find a break in the trees leading to the roads that serviced them.

In nearly the same breath that he called us crazy he also invited us to make camp near the train tracks behind the boat club and get a fresh start in the morning. We took him up on the offer and pitched our tent on the shallow rise below the tracks and hoped that the water would not rise the nearly 4 more feet that it was predicted to come up in the next 24 hours. We bid farewell to my parents who needed to head back to Chicago, and went about the task of organizing our gear for the next morning and conducting our first water tests.

For the next 4 hours there was a steady parade of people driving down to the river to see the biggest flood in fifteen years. Inevitably people would see our boats and ask about our trip. They nearly all called us crazy but they wished us a safe journey and asked if there was anything that they could do to help. One man who seemed genuinely worried for our safety presented us with a wood and silver crucifix that he said belonged to his mother. He told us to keep it with us during our journey. Patrick mounted the gift on his kayak and Jesus on the bow has been with us for every mile of the trip.

In the morning we broke camp and said our goodbyes to Molly and cautiously paddled down the flooded street out into the main channel. We found strong currents and pockets of swirling water but paddling it was manageable and within the first ten minutes Sarah, Patrick and I felt good about our decision to begin the trip in a flooded river. We made miles fast and around 5:00 pm we fought our way out of the current and pulled into the boat club at Chester, IL. This evening we had no visitors; all roads leading to the boat club had been flooded, completely cutting the clubhouse off from the rest of the town

Day 3: Chester, IL to Trail of Tears State Park, Missouri (47 river miles)

We ran into a disconcerting patch of white water late in the afternoon but paddled through without incident. Trail of Tears State Park seemed eerily abandoned due to the surrounding flooding. Again another night of no human visitors. A raccoon did come by in the middle of the night to investigate our food bag. Patrick and I promptly ran the raccoon into a tree and proceeded to bombard the animal with projectiles. I think we really scared it because it urinated on Pat’s face as he was trying to film it.

Day 4: We still have a lot to learn. Trail of Tears State Park, Missouri to Scudder Light (51 river miles)

This ended up being our toughest day so far. Throughout the morning we made quick miles and were starting to feel like we knew what to expect. Around 5:00 pm we began to close in on Thompson boat ramp which was our chosen landing point for the night. As we approached our destination a commercial barge more than 300 feet in length started coming around the bend. We pulled closer to the outside edge to avoid the barge but as we moved over to the edge we moved into a thick belt of fast moving trees and debris.

We were concerned that the wake from the barge would toss us into waves carrying this debris but assumed that the Thompson boat ramp would come into view at any moment. The ramp never appeared and we hurriedly ducked in behind some trees to get cover from the waves and debris. Almost immediately we realized that this was a mistake. We were trapped behind a precarious log jam and a vicious swirling counter current that threatened to release the log jam and pummel our boats with heavy tree trunks. On land the river abruptly ran against a dense jungle like patch of forest infested with mosquitoes and lacking any space free of downed logs to pitch a tent.

We debated a solution to our situation and decided to make a break for it. We watched the three swirling holes that blocked our exit and followed the paths of logs heavier than our kayaks as they circled into the center of the holes and were briefly pulled under the water. We definitely wanted to avoid those spots. We planned to ride the counter current back up river for about 30 feet and then use the swirling edge of the pool to sling shot us back out closer to the main channel. With pulses pounding, the three of us in our two boats paddled as hard as we could into the current.

We successfully avoided the largest of the holes but paddled right into a smaller one that had remained hidden to us from the shore. We quickly rafted our kayaks together and floated over the hole with a good speed and plenty of steerage way moving over our rudders. For a brief moment I could begin to feel Patrick’s kayak get sucked down into the water. It was a huge relief as soon as I felt it come back up with two inches of freeboard to spare.

We now had only two hours of daylight remaining and more than 20 miles to the next boat ramp. After three miles we found a tiny sliver of sand on the opposite bank just behind a signal light. It wasn’t nearly big enough for two tents so while Sarah cooked dinner, Pat and I cleared a patch of beach with a machete. This proved to be a fool's chore as we developed horrible cases of poison ivy over the next 24 hours.

Day 5: The Ohio joins the Team. Scudder Light to Columbus, KY (34 river miles)
We cut it short today because of a brutal heat. The confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers proved to be a very easy patch of water. When stopped at Columbus we were adopted by a man named Tony and his family. They hung out with us for hours and brought us cold drinks.

Day 6: Columbus, KY to Linda Boat Ramp (61 river miles)
Very long day and we are extremely tired. We camped beside a soybean field and were treated to the kind of sunset that you don’t easily forget. Kind fishermen and fisherwomen gave us cold sodas and a pack of hot dogs.

Day 7: Linda Boat Ramp to Island #21 (46 river miles)

Island number 21 is the most beautiful spot in the world. We pitched our tent on a white sand beach that stretched for miles and although the shorebirds might disagree, it was our own private island.

Day 8: Island # 21 to Hatchie Towhead (52 river miles)
We stayed on the water all day today. The current is slowing down and our speed has been slower. We camped beside a newly planted field atop a steep eroding bank.

Day 9: Memphis Welcome! Hatchie Towhead to Memphis, TN (34 miles)
We arrived in Memphis and were greeted at the Memphis Yacht club by members of the Mississippi River Corridor and the Memphis chapter of the Sierra Club. They interviewed us and watched us do a round of water testing on the docks. We were pleasantly surprised to hear that they were interested in our trip and had been following our progress. They are posting information about our trip and our research. Look for links to these organizations on this blog in the future.

A short while later after tying the boats to the docks, we were picked up by a good friend’s mother who is quickly becoming a good friend herself. She has graciously taken us into her home. In Memphis we have restocked supplies, visited a doctor seeking treatment for multiple heat related skin conditions, and been treated to some of the best barbecue around. Rest day tomorrow.

High School Biology Teacher, Aaron Reedy

Post from Catfish Point


I'm dictating these posts via cell phone from my camp here on Catfish Point just off the Mississippi bank at Mile Marker 569. Unfortunately these posts will be text only and I will update these with photos when I am able to get to a computer.

Day 12:

We started out making good paddle time but late in the afternoon, our progress slowed to a crawl when a stiff headwind reared up and formed steep waves against the current. By late in the afternoon, our progress was reduced to around three miles per hour. Just as we were ready to get off the river, we saw a castle to our left.

The green turrets and castle walls were part of the facade of the Fitz Hotel and Casino in Tunica, Mississippi. We paddled into a large dock and tied up the kayaks between two air boats that gave tours to casino visitors. We weren't expecting to find a castle let alone a casino, but when we found out they had cold drinks, hamburgers and french fries, we were glad we stumbled upon the place. After filling our bellies we paddled back across the river to a sandbar and made camp among flocks of shore birds that were nesting on the island's sandy interior.

Day 13:

Around one o'clock in the afternoon, we pulled off on a beach shaded with massive cottonwood trees to escape the heat of the day and conduct our midday water tests. Just as we were completing the last of our tests and contemplating returning to the kayaks, Sarah noticed a pontoon boat approaching the beach. As they got closer, we couldn't help but notice a large gas barbecue grill mounted on the front deck. Almost as soon as the pontoons had beached in the sand, Bubba, Bonnie, Chris and Tina had invited us aboard and fired up the grill for hamburgers and hot dogs. They also were very generous in sharing cold drinks from their two well-stocked coolers.

Bubba typifies the type of people we meet along the river - talkative, friendly, outgoing and willing to lend a helping hand if the need is there. As we parted ways, Bubba sent us off with a roll of fishing line and his best advice on how to catch a catfish. We paddled on toward Helena, Arkansas.

Day 15:

This morning I woke with the sunrise and walked on the beach to check the fishing line that we had set out the night before. For the first time this trip, there was a catfish on the hook. Fried with some salt and pepper, it was an excellent addition to our cold breakfast.

After two hours of paddling, we reached a significant milestone on our trip, the halfway point.

Live from Vicksburg

These posts are being put up from the Vicksburg office of the Army Corps of Engineers. Thank you Mark Richter for all of your help!

Day 16: Kentucky Bend Bar to Arcadia Point, MS (50 river miles)

The morning was chaotic. By this point in the trip Sarah, Patrick and I have a routine down. Each camp item gets packed away in a specific spot in the boats. Each drybag has to go in the proper order or things will not fit. Some things remain in the boats at all times. On this morning our routine was broken because Patrick had to empty his entire boat the previous afternoon. At the end of the day he found that the hold of his boat had filled with about an inch of water. He emptied everything out to try to find the leak and make repairs. His boat is still leaking but it appears to be more of an annoyance than a serious safety issue. Even with a complete repacking we left the beach by 8:00. By 10:00 it seemed like the sun was set to broil. We applied 50 SPF sunscreen nearly every hour and still the backs of our hands and our forearms burned. Sarah's lips began to burn despite applying sunblock chapstick constantly. We dipped our shirts into the river to stay cool and the wet fabric dried in less than 30 minutes. Paddling in the heat was draining but we were pushing hard to make it to Vicksburg, MS by the 4th of July. Around 1:00 we paddled into a swampy inlet to eat lunch and escape the sun. The only shade was among the mud behind the trees. We found a few logs to sit on to keep us from sinking completely into the deep mud. We have eaten lunches in a lot of beautiful settings on this trip but this mud pit was not one of them. All around us there were animal tracks. We have seen so many animal tracks in the mud that we almost stopped taking notice but now we have been noticing a new kind of track...alligator! Alligator tracks have a way of making you take notice. We kept our eyes open for gators as we ate our beans and rice but all we saw was a crawfish scuttling through the muck.

After lunch we returned to the sun. It only got hotter as the light breeze completely died. I found myself looking at my watch every ten minutes, hoping the day was closer to sun down and then being disappointed to find that it was only ten minutes closer. This heat was made worse by the fact that we were running low on water. I had finished the two liters that I had on deck long ago and was starting to think about the unpleasant realization that we were going to need to ration our water to make it to Vicksburg by the end of the day tomorrow. Around 5:00 our team morale was low and we were all looking forward to getting off of the water. We spotted a private boat ramp on the nautical chart and chose it as our ending point for the day on the chance that it may have a drinking water source. Many of the private boat ramps on the charts have been in the midst of vacation cabins and have had water available. The charts have proved to be very accurate. The only time they have been inaccurate so far we ended up in a tight spot hunting for the non-existent Thompson boat ramp in Missouri. This was the second time that the charts have been less than accurate. There was no ramp. We did spot a house and pulled onto a sandy bank to investigate.

The house proved to be in a state of abandonment. The grass was overgrown and buzzing with mosquitoes. There was a water tank atop a crooked wooden tower. PVC pipes led down from the tank to a tap. When I turned the rusty spigot we were disappointed to receive about a cup full of brown murky liquid. This was not the campsite we were hoping for. Even though we were dreading it, we returned to the kayaks and paddled on with less than an hour of daylight remaining.

We paddled two more miles around a bend and were disappointed to see miles of dense forest lining both sides of the channel. We were very close to facing a night with very little water on a steep slope with no space for tents. We all paddled in silence. Then we saw something in the distance.

A few miles up we spotted a clearing. In the clearing stood a large house. New hope for a campsite returned to our kayaks. It turned out to be better than we could have hoped for. As we got closer, a man ran out to the water’s edge and waved us in. Almost as soon as we stepped on to land, Glen, Althea, Bobby and June were insisting that we come inside the large house get cleaned up. We spent the evening talking, eating and drinking with our new friends. Once again we were shown the meaning of Southern hospitality.

Day 17 We made it to Vicksburg, MS! Happy 4th of July! (33 river miles)

Only 337 miles to New Orleans! Look for a big post with lots of pictures when we get there!


We made it to NOLA!

Day 18: July 5th , Vicksburg, MS

(0 River miles paddled)

Today we took a much needed zero mile day. Despite an air conditioned hotel room and a soft bed I was still up early as the river routine has my body expecting to be up and eating breakfast before sunrise. Instead of the usual oatmeal with powdered milk and dried fruit, Sarah and I walked across the street to the Fire and Ice cafĂ©. I ordered the “extreme breakfast” which seemed the only logical choice for the extreme appetite that I have developed on the river. Each day we typically spend six to 10 hours paddling. I estimate that this has our bodies burning somewhere around an additional 3,000 calories per day. I ate the biscuits and gravy, eggs, sausage, toast with butter and jelly and two huge pancakes and was satisfied for the moment but found myself hungry about an hour later.

After breakfast I walked down to the waterfront to move our boats off of the Sweet Olive, a large pontoon tour boat that docked near the Vicksburg boat ramp. Ann, the owner of the boat had graciously allowed us to tie up to the stern of Sweet Olive to keep our kayaks safe at night. As I paddled the boats the short fifty feet from Sweet Olive to the boat ramp I was glad to be taking a day off from the river. It was only 7:45 am but the temperature already seemed to be in the low 90’s and climbing.

When I returned to the hotel room I called Mark Richter of the Army Corps of Engineers, Vicksburg District. The Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for building and maintaining the elaborate system of dykes and levees along the entire length of the Mississippi River. I had got in touch with Mark via email months ago to ask him questions about average river velocities in June and July. He was very helpful and seemed to take an interest in our trip. A few days ago when Sarah, Pat and I were contemplating the logistics of doing a complete food resupply in Vicksburg we pulled over on a sandbar and called Mark to ask him questions about the layout of Vicksburg. He not only was a wealth of information but offered to drive us from our hotel to do a grocery shopping run.

Mark picked us up from our hotel room and not only took us grocery shopping but also took us to the laundry mat, to his office to use the computer, made sure that we got full on ice cream, and carted all of our gear the four blocks from the hotel to the boat ramp. Mark was another example of the truly wonderful people that we have met along the way who have been so willing to lend a hand.

By the time we had loaded the boats with fresh water and our grocery resupply it was 7:30 pm and the sun was getting low in the sky. We decided to look for another hotel room and get an early start in the morning but with the holiday weekend we knew that it would be a difficult task. Just as we were getting ready to walk into town, an extremely fit couple on a tandem bicycle rode up and asked where we were paddling to and from. Doug and Margorie were both very interested in our trip as we shared the details with them. They are both kayakers themselves and frequently paddle on the Yazoo and the Mississippi. In fact the two of them actually participate in nearly every outdoor sport there is; Marjorie is a former competitive triathelete and Doug is a top ranked world class adventure racer.

When they found out that we were looking for a place to stay they told us that they owned a bed and breakfast, that they had no rooms available but that we were welcome to camp out on the floor of their parlor room. As if that offer wasn’t sweet enough, they also said that they would make us dinner and breakfast and that they couldn’t charge us. Once again we could hardly believe how helpful people can be. We eagerly took them up on their offer. The Baer House Bed and Breakfast turned out to be an unbelievably beautifully restored home built in the 1870’s. Margorie proved to be a great cook and we stayed up until past midnight talking about kayaking and swapping stories from past adventures. Vicksburg was a great rest stop.

Day 20: July 7th, Coffee Point to

Natchez, MS

(40 river miles)

Pat and I started the day by paddling out to check the five fishing lines that we had set out among the willows yesterday afternoon. It was still about 45 minutes before sunrise and the mosquitoes seemed to be getting desperate. Buzzing hordes of them swarmed every inch of our exposed skin. Within minutes we looked like measles patients. Our efforts were rewarded when we pulled up a catfish of about 3 lbs. on the end of the third line that we checked. We fried the fish up with blackening seasoning just minutes after pulling it out of the river.

When we packed up camp and hit the river it was already painfully hot. Large cumulous clouds began building on every horizon and we started hoping that they would arrive and shade us from the sun before the afternoon sun fired up.

By midday the clouds did arrive but they had turned darker and came with frequent lightning strikes. After a few hours in the sun they were still welcome even if they brought a down pour and high winds. We preferred any set of weather conditions to painfully hot and sunny. As the strong wind gusts and lightning strikes intensified we hurried to take down the mast on the water. It seemed unwise to paddle on open water with a lightning rod atop our kayak. We rafted the two kayaks together for stability and Pat cautiously stood up to take the mast apart. After the mast was down the lightning got a bit closer but never was truly close to us. We paddled hard for Natchez uncertain of how the storm would play out.

Natchez, Mississippi is the type of classic river town that we had been expecting to see but up until now we hadn’t found. It fits the image of Mark Twain’s Mississippi so well that several film versions of Huck Finn have been filmed in Natchez. It has a rich history tied to the river and is the location of the famous sandbar fight where Jim Bowie, wooded from a bullet to the hip, made the Bowie knife famous by killing a man with a 10 inch blade during a duel on a sandbar. As the story spread, sales of the “Bowie” knife increased throughout the region. The river towns have definitely become a lot less rough and tumble since those days.

After setting up camp in the public park, we spent time in the Saloon Under the Hill which was conveniently located at the top of the boat ramp. The place was covered with river memorabilia and newspaper clippings about river characters. Andre the owner of the place showed us around and he and the regular patrons of the bar spent hours telling us stories about Natchez and the river. Andre called his friend Keith, who is an avid river kayaker to come and meet us. Keith runs the Phatwater Kayak challenge, which is a 45 mile kayak race which finishes in Natchez and takes place every October. He gave us race t-shirts and a sincere invitation to come back and stay with him in October. Natchez is a great town and the three of us are strongly considering returning in the fall.

Day 23: July 10th, Ratcliff Landing to Point Menoir

(34 river miles)

It was another hot day on the river. We were ready to pack it in for the day but couldn’t find land to camp on. The high water has made landing sites in short supply throughout our trip. We paddled out of a chute and in the distance on the opposite side of the river we spotted a house with a large grassy yard on the opposite side of the river. It was less than a mile and a half away and we paddled hard to cross the river in such a short distance.

As we paddled up to the yard we could see an impressive house with an expansive view of the river. We got out of the boats and I walked up to the house to ask permission to camp in the yard. A truck pulled up in the driveway and a large man and his full grown boxer stepped out. Glynn, a former semi pro football player, and his barking dog seemed a bit intimidating at first but as soon as I had introduced myself he was quick to welcome us to Wildwood plantation. The land had been in his family since the 1700’s. Although Glynn owns a construction company there is still some farming that goes on at the plantation. Glynn sat and talked with us about the history of the plantation for a few hours. He invited us into his home to clean up and to show us his hunting trophies including an alligator more than 11 feet long. When we asked if we could take his picture with the alligator he grinned and decided to entertain us by hamming it up for the camera. He quickly donned his camouflage and posed in front of the gator with an empty bottle of wine and a machine gun. I didn’t ask if the gun was loaded.

We spent the end of the day swimming in Glynn’s p00l and watching the sunset over the river.

Day 26: July 13, Donaldsonville Boat Ramp to

Bonnett Carre Spillway

(47 river miles)

By this point the river has become an industrial corridor. Nearly all of the time that we are on the water we are constantly scanning the horizon around every bend in the river looking for barges and ocean going cargo ships hundreds of feet long. Lining each bank there are barges tied up that make it difficult to spot moving barges as they blend in with the anchored ships. At one point today Sarah and I were coming around a bend and sailing towards what we thought was an anchored cargo ship. As we got closer the ship, which had been holding up for a passing barge, it began to throttle up again and quickly move in our direction. As we dropped the sail to paddle hard for the left bank, the ship’s pilot laid on the horn to further motivate us. Although it seemed close, we broke into a full speed paddle and easily cleared the ships bow by more than a hundred yards. Dodging barges and ships is just part of our routine since we passed below Baton Rouge

Day 27: July 14, Bonnett Carre Spillway to

New Orleans, Louisiana

(34 river miles)

We made it! As we got closer to New Orleans, nearly every barge and tug captain waved to us or gave us a thumbs up. One tug crew tossed us cold cokes and let Sarah come aboard to use the bathroom.

When we got close to the city, people all along the river bank waved to us. For the last half mile we even had a soundtrack as a woman playing a pipe organ atop a paddle boat played Row Row Row Your Boat in our honor. We clapped wildly at the end of the song and she stood up and took a bow.

We pulled up to a short set of wooden steps directly in front of the St. Louis Cathedral. It was the perfect place to end our journey. As we took photos and packed up our gear and boats we talked to dozens of people who passed by and congratulated us on reaching New Orleans. It has been a great trip and its now time to celebrate.


Soggy Science Update

What has the soggy science learned so far from the research they have conducted?

The biggest thing that we have learned so far is that conducting research in an unpredictable field setting is hard work! Typically we are conducting water tests twice each day. Most of our samples are being collected in the middle of the river channel and then we paddle for shore to conduct the tests. Due to the strong current, moving laterally on the river is challenging and we usually have to dig in hard with our paddles to reach a given point on shore. When we get to shore we quickly set up our field laboratory and run the tests for dissolved oxygen, phosphates and nitrates. The nitrate test has not been functioning properly. This has tested our problem solving abilities. After talking it over with a lab tech from Hach and some serious thinking, we suspect that the high turbidity in the river is interfering with the nitrate test. We have improvised a solution and are collecting nitrate data again but the data set may be somewhat compromised. We have collected nearly 40 data points over 600 miles and are looking forward to the analysis when we get back.

The high water and flooding that we are experiencing have made the large woody debris microhabitat study unrealistic. All of the snags are currently underwater! Hopefully we will be able to collect some data a little further south.


The Soggy Science Expedition Team

What kind of boats will you be traveling in?
We will be paddling Feathercraft folding kayaks. Patrick will be paddling a K1 Expedition and Sarah and I will paddle a tandem K2 Expedition. The boats consist of a waterproof skin that is fit tightly over an aluminum frame. Feathercraft boats are top of the line expedition touring kayaks that are designed to be paddled even in rough open ocean conditions. Perhaps the most amazing thing about Feathercraft kayaks is that they can be disassembled and carried in a large bag. Click the link on the right to learn more about Feathercraft kayaks.

Where will you sleep?
Each night we will camp out on sandbars, islands, and in the bottomland forests that line the river. We don’t have any of our campsites planned out. We will look at the navigational charts each day and try to anticipate good campsites.

How will you fit all of your food in the kayaks?
The Feathercraft K1 and K2 expedition kayaks can carry fairly large payloads inside the boat. The K2 can hold around 700 lbs including paddlers and the K1 can hold about 385 lbs. We will be carrying a lot of food and equipment but should come nowhere close to the weight limits on either boat. We will need to restock drinking water roughly every 3-5 days. This should give us opportunities to supplement our food supplies with fresh meat and produce on occasion.

What kind of scientific equipment will you be using?
To measure nutrient pollution and dissolved oxygen in water samples we will be using a Hach DR850 colorimeter. A colorimeter is a piece of equipment that measures the absorbance of light as it passes through a solution. Reagents will be added to each sample to test for nitrates, phosphates and dissolved oxygen. In the presence of these substances the samples will change color and less light will pass through them. The colorimeter will measure how much light passes through the sample and will give a reading for the pollutant being tested in milligrams per liter (mg/L).

The colorimeter basically looks like an oversized calculator with a well towards the top. A glass container, called a cuvette, holds the water sample and gets placed in the well for testing. A cover is then placed over the sample during testing to keep out outside light as the colorimeter passes light through the sample.

For our study of large woody debris, or snags, we will simply be counting and marking the locations of snags in selected sections of river. We will be paddling close to the shore during these counts. The equipment we will be using for the counts will be our eyes, a pencil and notebook, and a handheld water proof GPS unit.

Got any more questions for the Soggy Science Team?

Please post them and we’ll respond.


Background of the expedition

How the expedition came to be:

The idea for this trip was originally Sarah's. Shortly after we came back from a 5 day kayak trip on the South island of New Zealand, Sarah suggested that we one day paddle down the Mississippi River. Sarah’s enthusiasm for the trip has since been tempered by the realization that the Mississippi will require a great deal of toiling under the sun and battling mosquitoes, but I have remained enamored with the idea ever since she proposed it. We put the river on the backburner for a few years, but this year, thanks in part to Fund for Teachers, things worked out for the trip to come together.

When I came across the Fund for Teachers Summer Fellowship Program I began to think about the river once again. Fund for Teachers is an organization that supports teachers in a variety of ways. One of their most innovative programs is the Summer Fellows program which awards grants that allow individual teachers and small teams of teachers to design fellowship experiences tailor made to improve their own teaching practice. This year alone Fund for Teachers in partnership with the Chicago Foundation for Education funded 31 proposals that will enable 49 Chicago Public School teachers to travel to 22 countries and 6 continents as they pursue their lifelong professional dreams. This year’s fellows will pursue activities as diverse as studying penguins off the coast of South Africa, attending a puppetry workshop in Italy and documenting folk festivals in Peru. Click the link on the top right of the page if you would like to learn more about Fund for Teachers.

My fellowship will allow me to conduct scientific research on nutrient pollution and microhabitats in the Lower Mississippi River as I paddle a sea kayak more than 1,000 miles from St. Louis to New Orleans. During the trip Sarah, Pat and I will be traveling in Feathercraft folding kayaks and camping nearly every night on sandbars, islands and the banks as we make our way down river collecting chemical and habitat data. Using this field experience I will develop a river ecology unit for my biology students.

What we hope to learn:

The chemical data that we will be collecting will help us to learn more about nutrient pollution in the Mississippi River watershed. As Nitrogen and Phosphorus from agricultural, municipal, industrial, domestic and natural sources make their way into the river they are carried south where they build up in the Gulf of Mexico. When these nutrients are present in high concentrations they lead to an explosion of growth among phytoplankton and green algae. This growth of autotrophs leads to an increase of zooplankton. As the plankton and algae start to die, there is an increased load of detritus or dead organic material which builds up on the bottom of the gulf. This detritus leads to an explosion in bacteria. These bacteria then use up nearly all available oxygen in the depths and create low oxygen or hypoxic conditions. If these hypoxic conditions are widespread and severe it leads to the formation of a dead zone, a large area nearly devoid of invertebrates and fish. During its summer peak the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, which is fueled by nutrient pollution in the Mississippi River, covers an area of roughly 8,500 square miles.

The Habitat data that we will be collecting is related to large woody debris, often called snags, in the river. Snags are important habitats for aquatic life in the river but are becoming increasingly rare in rivers as man-made alterations are made to river banks to allow for flood control, a faster flow velocity in the channel and easier navigation. We will be recording the frequency and locations of snags to see just how severely human manipulation of the river has affected these important microhabitats. Check out the links at the right to learn more about nutrient pollution, the dead zone and microhabitats.