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Nancy Scheibe. Photo by Nancy Hernesma.
Nancy Scheibe. Photo by Nancy Hernesma.
A woman named Elizabeth pulled Nancy Scheibe aside at a Water Women Wisdom gathering in Hannibal, Mo., and said to her, "You have no idea the impact you're having, do you?"

"Probably not," Scheibe responded, "And that's OK. I'm just doing what I'm doing." Scheibe said sometimes her journey of gathering women's wisdom while paddling the Mississippi River from the headwaters to the delta does feel overwhelming. But rather than analyzing it, "It's easier to just keep showing up and doing it."

When Scheibe's 50th birthday approached a few years ago, she recalled, "I looked at the list of things I wanted to do in my life and remembered that I wanted to paddle the Mississippi."

The trip grew into more than a paddle downstream. Scheibe-and the organization she founded, Water Women Wisdom-began to gather the stories and wisdom of "grandmothers," a term which includes all women 50 years or older.

"Many women ... had been taught by our culture that what they have to say isn't important. I'm trying to do something about that lost wisdom," Scheibe said.

"As far back as I can remember, I saw women working quietly behind the scenes, but they have powerful stories. I remembered thinking as a child that women aren't being heard."

As she planned her travels she envisioned a series of gatherings for women to come together, tell their stories and share their wisdom. She completed the first two legs, from Lake Itasca to Red Wing, in the summer of 2004, and from Red Wing to St. Louis this past fall. The stories she gathered from the first trip and her own reflections were published in "Water Women Wisdom: Voices from the Upper Mississippi," in 2007.

"People got it," Scheibe said, thanks to the first trip and the book. On her second trip, she spent less time having to explain her "wisdom gathering" mission and more women showed up to share their stories.

On her second trip, Scheibe and her kayaking companion, Kitty Kennedy (both from Ely, Minn.) were joined by 27 women along the way who paddled with them for a day or more. Gathering circles were held in nine locations and 154 wisdom stories were collected. Scheibe was awed by the powerful stories she heard. "All I did was show up," she said. "I am amazed at the ripple effect that just showing up can have."

In the months ahead, Scheibe will transcribe this year's stories for a second book in her river journey series. She will plan her three final trips to finish traveling the length of the Mississippi. She's looking at broadening the vision of her Water Women Wisdom organization to collect women's stories and wisdom from beyond the Mississippi River corridor. She's also thinking about how to empower other women or communities to do something similar. "We all have the capacity to do this-to hear each others' stories and gain the wisdom," Scheibe said.