Motorboating. Snowmobiling. ATVing. This was my childhood; I loved it. Growing up in Minnesota, I learned how to appreciate every season, even the lengthier ones.
Since that is what my family did, I seldom engaged in other ways of interacting with our natural world through activities that are gentler on the earth. I knew about other sports and lifestyles, but they seemed foreign and inaccessible to me. I didn’t know where to start.
A cross-country move, motivated by a desire for a change of scenery after university, landed me in the maritime climate of New England. Through my new communities, I engaged in soft sports like backpacking, paddling, biking, and skiing. It was the first time I experienced gratification and physical exercise in nature while consciously leaving as little trace as possible.
As I began to grow restless in my corporate career, I longed for more meaningful work. By the time the pandemic hit, I had already given notice to my job and landlord, fully set on taking a 100 percent pay cut and heading off to another part of the world. A Peace Corps officer called three weeks before my departure date informing me that my service had been put on hold. After hanging up — afraid, confused, and not knowing where else to go — I called my parents and said I was returning to Minnesota.
Casually scrolling the internet after a delayed flight, I started researching outdoor educators in the Upper Midwest — summer camps, outfitters, anything that would get me outside interacting with people and away from a computer screen. One whitewater guiding company in Sandstone, Minnesota, invited me to come up and shadow a trip. The owner handed me a guide paddle on my first run through rapids and said, “Here, get us down.” That was my first trip of many over the course of two summers.
Guiding fundamentally changed how I view, interact with, and share our rivers and natural spaces with others. Working on the rivers most days, month after month, I experienced how a single rainfall affected water levels. Throughout the season, I felt how flooding, erosion, and drought uniquely impact moving waterways. When drought struck during my second year of whitewater guiding, the rapids were so low that they were unnavigable and I was unable to work.
Later, I decided I wanted to work closer to my Twin Cities community. I struck gold when a cold outreach to a local kayaking guide collective led to a job. Shortly after starting, I began to hear common concerns from local residents and paddlers about recreation on the Mississippi River: it was polluted, dangerous, and unwelcoming. This pushed me to educate myself on what was actually happening on this river.
Agricultural runoff is degrading water quality on the Upper Mississippi. Significant shoreline erosion from high winds and motorboat traffic has made it increasingly difficult to access rivers from steep banks. Invasive species like carp and mussels are eating native aquatic life. The Upper Mississippi River (from the headwaters in northern Minnesota through Illinois and Missouri) used to be home to nearly 150 native fish species, and now about 35 remain, the rest killed off by development and commercial shipping. Outdated infrastructure built to support the former milling industry is abandoned, left for future generations to deal with. New development and gentrification has cut off many neighborhoods’ access to the river, contributing to the siloed representation of who is welcome to enjoy this waterway.
I also observed the social, economic, and accessibility barriers of entry to paddle sports. The investment in proper equipment and training is out of reach for many. Where resources do exist to bridge these gaps, they are often in high demand and underfunded, or remain largely unknown to the public.
To address these issues, an emerging river community is bridging barriers between the Mississippi River and its visitors. Organizations like the one I work for host free, monthly guided open paddles to help introduce people to paddle sports. Individuals and groups with limited funds can be nominated by the community to participate in kayak education and guided tours at no cost. I also partake in community partnerships that use specialized equipment to make kayaking accessible to disabled and neurodiverse folks.
The communities forming around the Mississippi are also enlivening conservation efforts. Parks departments and environmental organizations are establishing protected shorelines and islands along the Mississippi and reintroducing native wildlife. As industrial facilities that once used the Mississippi River as a means of power and transportation move out, water quality improves, and indicator species like river mussels, otters, and beavers that rely on healthy water can return.
This summer, new obstacles affected how paddlers interact with our waters. Canceled or rescheduled trips became common because of the health risks of being outdoors. Unusual weather patterns made it harder to plan. The thick haze from wildfire smoke was a severe weather hazard. Paddling our waters and experiencing these environmental changes on a regular basis, I am motivated to act and speak to shift our relationship to the earth so that it remains for future generations.