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Augsburg students stop in La Crosse during 'Semester on the River'

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For a group of students from Augsburg University, their guides and instructor, a trip down the Mississippi River could be considered a modern-day river expedition. The group stopped overnight in La Crosse Sept. 20, 17 days after they launched from the Twin Cities

As it moves down the river, the expedition will study current conditions and life of the iconic waterway. The purpose of the trip is to do field research on the history, literature, food, music and culture of country’s heartland.

“Students are mostly in the humanities and environmental studies,” said Augsburg University professor Joe Underhill, expedition head.

The students receive instruction on boating terms and skills as well as the various topics associated with the cultural, social and environmental aspects of the people and communities they visit. They earn a full semester of college credits in a customized curriculum on the cultural and societal aspects of the Mississippi watershed.

Attracted to the immersion experience, crew members enrolled in the customized educational program. Along with students from Minnesota and Wisconsin, two are from California and one from Virginia. Subjects they will study include environmental justice, agriculture, political organizing, race relations, social justice and riverfront revitalization.

“We met with people on both sides of the pipeline issue,” said Underhill. “And we’ve met with local experts including some from the Anishinaabe, a Native American tribe.”

Before setting sail Sept. 4 from St. Paul, Minn., the group visited the headwaters of the river and Lake Itasca. The 2021 trip is the fourth such expedition sponsored by Augsburg University in Minneapolis, Minn. The first expedition was in 2015, later voyages were conducted in 2018 and 2019.

According to Underhill, previous expeditions used voyageur-style canoes, but the catamarans he designed and built with help from an intern, includes a bridge deck where supplies could be stowed.

“We try to be as self-sufficient as possible,” said Underhill. “We’ve taken a college campus and boiled it down to two boats.”

Each catamaran is also outfitted with a mast and sail, a feature voyageur canoes weren’t equipped with. Underhill remarked the sails have helped speed up their travel time.

“We’ve kind of established that sailing on the Mississippi is doable,” said Underhill.

Zoe Barany, Augsburg University environmental studies and communications major, joined the expedition to “just have a different experience after COVID.”

“I could get out and meet people,” said Barany. “We learn about the impact of the environment on the people who lived there. We are learning about the land and about history. What I learn I will carry with me for the rest of my life.”

Barany indicated the crew members are also a source of knowledge. “Everyone has their niche,” said Barany. “We’re learning from each other.”

Along with classwork and camping supplies, the expedition is outfitted with sampling equipment and solar powered batteries for charging phones and laptops, which allow the students to take tests and do assignments.

While the group is taking riverbed samples for a geology professor at the University of Leicester in England who is studying Mississippi River sediment, the purpose of the expedition isn’t exclusively ecology-concentrated.

To complete the 100-day journey by the end of the semester, the expedition is endeavoring to arrive at the Gulf of Mexico in December.

Updates of the journey are being posted on the university’s website at www.augsburg.edu/river and on its River Semester Facebook page.

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