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Perspective: 'Saiddling' the Mighty Mississipp

Two college kids in a homemade dinghy pick me up on a Mississippi River backwater near Savannah, and row me out to their beach camp. There I join the Augsburg University River Semester for four days of their 100-day self-propelled odyssey down the Great River, from Minneapolis to the Gulf of Mexico. The expedition includes a dozen Augsburg students and their skipper, professor Joe Underhill.

43 days in, the group is riverworn, but full of smiles, and they share with me a steaming pot of hippie stew. Over our next few days together, I’ll sing a water blessing, navigate a lock, lose a spitting contest, sail a close haul, evade a monster barge, and learn the secret vernacular of river folks, such as calling the green buoys “cans” and the red buoys “nuns.”

Every barge pilot, waterfowl hunter, riverboater, lock operator, yachtist and bridgeman on the Mississippi does a double take when the Augsburg crew floats by. River folks see plenty of odd ducks on the big river, but they don’t often spy home-built, hand-painted catamarans skippered by college students saiddling downriver. Did I say saiddling? What’s the word for simultaneously paddling and sailing a wooden catamaran? Paddailing.

I get off the river on a rainy morning just four days later, near Fulton. The dinghy ferries me once again. Approaching Beaver Island, whitecaps kick up, and river water slops over the gunnels. Barges line both shores, waiting out the weather. From the far bank, our beach campsite already looks far away. In a few minutes I’ll be in a dry car heading north, the wrong direction.

I’m Chris Fink and that’s my Perspective.

Chris Fink is a professor of English and Environmental Studies at Beloit College. He is the author of Farmer's Almanac, A Work of Fiction.