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Rolling river science lab: Woman kayaking Mississippi to collect pollution

Rolling river science lab: Woman kayaking Mississippi to collect pollution

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After reaching a crossroad in her career, Alyssum Pohl of Washington, D.C., began to dream big — Mississippi River-sized big.

After a dream in March — “that I was paddling down the river with my two cats” — she decided to kayak from Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico on the Mississippi River, to document water quality and plastic waste.

Pohl, who stopped in Winona Tuesday and Wednesday, travels with a bag of food stashed between her legs, her tent, sleeping bag and other essentials strapped to the front of her 17-foot sea kayak. Pohl enjoys listening to audio books, such as classics — “Huckleberry Finn,” of course — as she travels.

She did choose to leave a few possessions behind: “Luckily, my friends convinced me not to bring my cats,” she said.

Pohl started her journey June 27 and expects it will take four months to complete, spending an average of eight hours a day paddling. She camps at water-access campsites or small islands each night.

Pohl’s journey began, dream aside, when she picked up a paddle after her two-year fellowship working on marine and coastal conservation ended.

“I decided, you know what, I miss being in the wilderness and I miss doing environmental work,” she said. “I decided I didn’t need permission to do the work.”

Pohl collects data for the Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation microplastic campaign. Every 100 miles, she gathers a liter water sample and sends it to headquarters. Scientists there dry the sample and burn off organic matter, leaving the metal and plastic invisible in the Mississippi waters. This campaign includes data collected internationally from freshwater sources.

Pohl also dips a sonde, or water-quality probe, into the river as she floats, measuring temperature, dissolved solids, levels of oxygen and water transparency. And she documents amounts of plastic waste through pictures. She also does her best to clean up beaches as she goes.

Besides sharing her findings with the departments of natural resources of the 10 states she plans to paddle through, Pohl plans to compare her data to a similar study done by scientist John Sullivan on the Mississippi River years ago.

Pohl, originally from eastern Kentucky, has minimal experience kayaking, except for a family trip to the Boundary Waters when she was 8. But it hasn’t slowed her down.

“The longest day I’ve done so far was 37 miles. ... What I lack in strength and speed, I think I make up for in determination,” she said.

Besides just the physical challenge of paddling for hours a day, Pohl also lives with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a connective tissue disorder that makes her joints loose. As a result, the repetitive motion of paddling is really hard on her body, she said.

Pohl had a rough start. The first day, her stove exploded and her shoes broke. For the first month she ate cold dehydrated food soaked in water and went without shoes. She’s also endured the creatures any river-rat might, such as leeches, bugs and swarms of mosquitoes.

In Grand Rapids, she said, she finally understood the Mississippi River’s nickname “Big Muddy.” The water’s appearance depends on which rivers connect with it. For example, she said, the water became dirtier after the Minnesota River, but was cleaner after the St. Croix River.

“It’s not a static river, it’s not like it gets worse and worse — it changes,” Pohl said. “I’ve been surprised by how much and how often. ... The water was just crystal-clear until I got to Grand Rapids.”

As much as the river changes, what Pohl finds in the river also changes. Pohl said she saw as much plastic paddling into Minneapolis as she had seen the entire month before. She has also come across basketballs, footballs, a stove and other metal objects so rusted they are hardly recognizable.

Pohl’s journey so far, she said, has taught her just how connected everything is, from the river to the people whose actions influence and change it.

“If we don’t take care of it, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot,” she said. “We need to care about our whole earth and not just what’s here.”

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