by Clara Higgins; First Member and Student at Augsburg University
This past semester, I spent 100 days on the Mississippi River as a part of the Augsburg University River Semester with 15 other students, 2 professors and 2 expedition guides. The original plan for this semester was to canoe from Minneapolis to Memphis. We paddled in four 24-foot handmade wooden Voyageur canoes and loaded all of our gear into these canoes, which included ten days’ worth of food for nineteen people, safety gear, science equipment, camp gear, personal gear, forty 10-liter dromedary sacks of drinking water and solar panels. We paddled between 25-30 miles per day 4-5 days a week, we set up tents and a makeshift kitchen, cooked all of our food and were also enrolled in a full course load. Most of our classes focused on environmental studies, but I also was able to do an independent study in Civil War history for my history major. We used our solar panels to charge lithium batteries to charge Chromebooks in order to do our coursework.
Our plans to paddle to Memphis quickly changed after inclement weather began and continued, and continued. On our fifth day on the river, we lost the majority of gear due to a tornado, but our outfitter, Wilderness Inquiry, replaced our gear. About a week later, our canoe was damaged after hitting a rock. We slept through severe thunderstorms and slept in soaking wet sleeping bags. We paddled in the snow and experienced major flooding. Due to this flooding, we were forced to shuttle from Davenport, Iowa, to St. Louis, where we stayed for a few weeks. After our stay in St. Louis, we paddled to the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers at Cairo, Illinois. At this point, air and water temperatures were too cold to continue to safely paddle with what gear we had. Because of one of our guides’ connections in Carbondale, Illinois, we decided to finish out our final 15 days there, at a state park, to get out of the cold and work on final projects.
Throughout our eventful semester, though, we witnessed so much kindness on the river. We called anyone who helped us, a “river angel.” Some of these river angels were pastors who let us stay in their churches to escape inclement weather or the cold. When we needed a warm and dry place to sleep, our guides would call churches, without any connection to the church and ask if we could stay there. When I think back to the generosity of these churches, I think about Matthew 25:35, which reads, “I was a stranger and you invited me in.” Throughout this semester, I saw so many people show God’s love by helping us, the stranger. Although it was often that we came from very different backgrounds than our river angels, we were able to find common ground over something which we considered home (either permanently or temporarily), the Mississippi River. We saw its importance. The Mississippi River is a glorious wonder of God’s creation which we have the vocation to protect.