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Semester on the river

Students from Augsburg College in Minneapolis prepare to leave Levee Park before noon Friday Sept. 4 at Levee Park after spending the morning at a lecture in the St. James Hotel. (Republican Eagle photo by Michael Brun)1 / 3
The group poses for a quick photo before saying goodbye to Red Wing. 2 / 3
Professor Joe Underhill swaps his shoes for wading boots before setting off. The educator had explored the idea of a river semester at Augsburg College for 15 years since coming to the Twin Cities in the late-1990s.3 / 3

While their classmates settled into their seats last week, a dozen Twin Cities college students were sitting in canoes for a first-of-its-kind semester on the Mississippi River.

The travelling class from Augsburg College in Minneapolis, accompanied by two professors and a couple guides from outfitter Wilderness Inquiry, docked in Levee Park on Friday Sept. 4 for a lecture at the St. James Hotel.

“They’re a good gang,” said professor Joe Underhill from the college’s environmental studies and political science departments about the 12 students who signed up for the 104-day, 800-mile learning trip.

The class completed orientation at the Mississippi River headwaters of Lake Itasca before beginning the first leg of the journey — St. Paul to St. Louis — last week. From there the group will paddle from Clarksdale to Greenville, Mississippi, before spending the final three weeks near the Gulf of Mexico.

“We picked what we considered to be our favorite 800 miles,” Underhill said. “We really can’t paddle more than that giving we have to fit in a full load of courses.”

Packed into four 25-foot-long canoes are a whiteboard, projector, lab equipment and wireless Internet to provide a mobile classroom wherever they are able to make camp.

Students can expect to spend their days paddling, doing coursework and research — such as the presentation Friday by Dan McGuinness and Mike McKay from Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance — or a mixture of both, with a few free days to rest.


In addition to classes, the students are undertaking semester-long projects related to their majors, ranging from environmental studies to biology and art.

Sophomore Natasha Localio said her project is testing the quality of drinking water as they move south.

“I just want to see how it changes and why people in New Orleans aren’t drinking water from the Mississippi,” Localio said.

The environmental studies major said she is one of several classmates with camping and canoeing experience, though she admits it took her about a month to decide if she wanted to commit to the trip.

Fellow sophomore Izzie Smith said the class got off to a rough start when it rained the first night while they were camped on an island.

“Everything was sandy and wet and gritty,” Smith said.

She will team with political science junior Noah Cameron to record river sounds for a Minneapolis artist. Smith also is recording interviews with interesting people met along the way, which she will turn into a podcast.

“For four days in, we’ve done a lot, talked to a lot of people and paddled a lot of miles,” Smith said. “Every place we stop becomes a learning experience for us.”

Biology students Jubilee Prosser and Blair Stewig said their focus is mapping sediment on the bottom of the river using a sonar rig mounted to the side of a canoe.

Karl Hahn and Glen Gardner, in contrast, are doing a test run of an online advanced art class by doing sketches of the river.

“It’s going to be really cool opportunity for us to see the Mississippi and show it to other people,” Gardner said.

Years of planning

Underhill began exploring the possibility of a river semester after moving to the Twin Cities in the late-1990s. Specific planning for the semester took around three years, he said.

Though the trip will be physically challenging, Underhill said the opportunity for out-of-class learning is invaluable.

“We can talk about the Mississippi River in theory and with textbooks, but there’s no substitute for experiencing this first-hand.”

The class is keeping a blog of the journey at

Michael Brun

Michael Brun joined RiverTown Multimedia at the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2013, covering county government, health and local events.  He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls journalism program.

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