Adventurers of the Week: UPS students rowing the Mississippi River

Sam Friedman, Audra Tromly and Eric Nathanson row at sunset in Minnesota. They are part of a University of Puget Sound group that is rowing the length of the Mississippi River.
Sam Friedman, Audra Tromly and Eric Nathanson row at sunset in Minnesota. They are part of a University of Puget Sound group that is rowing the length of the Mississippi River. Courtesy

If all goes as planned, a small group of recent University of Puget Sound graduates will row into the Gulf of Mexico on Thanksgiving.

Since the middle of August, the foursome has been canoeing and rowing the 2,300-mile Mississippi River. They started in Minnesota and recently reached Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Along the way, Sam Friedman, Eric Nathanson, Audra Tromly and Calli Vasatka are collecting data for scientific research, visiting schools (they’ve spoken to nearly 4,000 students so far) and shooting images for Google Maps. And all while they’re experiencing the adventure of a lifetime.

They row as many as 12 hours per day on a trip that’s the optional culmination of a class they took spring semester.

Eight people signed up for the new class that studies the history, science and impact of the world’s fourth longest river. Those who aren’t rowing help manage the expedition from shore.

The class is taught by Jordan Hanssen, a UPS graduate and accomplished adventurer. Hanssen has rowed across the Atlantic Ocean twice and circumnavigated Vancouver Island and the Olympic Peninsula. In 2014, he led an expedition down the Mississippi to set the foundation for this college program. Last year, he helped a pair of UPS graduates row 730 miles of the Columbia River.

When Hanssen attended a UPS rowing practice last year to recruit members for his class, he piqued Vasatka’s interest.

“I thought he was absolutely crazy,” Vasatka said. “Then I thought, ‘Why wouldn’t I do it?’ 

She and the others enrolled in January, and she said the experience has been “really, really fascinating.”

Navigating the Mississippi is no easy feat. At one point, Vasatka became sick and had to come home until she was cleared by her doctors. She rejoined the crew in Natchez, Mississippi, on Nov. 12.

While recovering, the 22-year-old from Monroe took time to field a few questions about the journey so far:

Q: Were there doubts that creeped in as you were taking the class?

A: I don’t think I knew exactly what I was about to get myself into. I knew how to row a racing shell. You go to practice (with the UPS racing team) every day and you row really hard for two hours, but this is more of a sustained effort all day. … I also had very limited camping experience. I had to learn those things in the first couple of weeks.

Q: With no camping experience, how long did it take you to get comfortable, especially on days when it was raining?

A: It definitely took a while to get used to our camping setup. We don’t use tents. We use a bivy, and we can set up a tarp over it and sleep in the open air. If it is raining or the mosquitoes are bad we can zip up the bivy sack. On days we know it is going to rain, we have a tarp that’s like a tent minus the bottom.

The first few times we got in rain storms in Minnesota, and you don’t know when it’s going to end, you’re trying to keep up team morale. You get to a point where everything is wet, and you try not to feel sorry for yourself. … There were some nights where we would sleep with our wet clothes in our sleeping bag, which isn’t comfortable, but at least you get them reasonably dry.

But I think as long as I put my mind to it, I’m capable of doing anything. It can be discouraging being caught in a rain storm and not being able to go inside. But eventually it gets better, and it’s just being able to allow yourself to power through that and know that it will get sunny again and everything will be OK.

Q: It would seem this will look pretty good on the résumé when you starting looking for jobs?

A: It has definitely given me a lot of tools that you don’t necessarily use in college. You spend so much time studying and learning how to learn, but you don’t necessarily learn finer points of group dynamics or teamwork. We are out there working as a group that may have different viewpoints, but in the end you have the same goal. I’ve learned a lot.

Q: Have there been nerve-racking moments so far?

A: Nothing too bad. We’ve had a few thunderstorms. That’s always interesting. But for the most part it’s been pretty good. We haven’t been run over by any barges or large boats.

Q: What’s it like going through the locks (there are more than 25 on the river)?

A: I absolutely love going through the locks. It’s an opportunity to talk to people. Sometimes they think we’re slightly crazy. We get a lot of weird looks. It’s also a chance to take a break and see all the other boats around. There have been a few times when we are waiting to go through the locks and there was a barge on the other side. To watch the barges move in and out of the locks is interesting because they take up almost the exact length and width of the lock.

Q: What are you typically talking to the kids about during your classroom visits along the way?

A: We’ve met with kindergartners up to seniors in college. With the kindergartners, it’s about learning and being outside. With older students, we talk about the science we are doing. (They are collecting data for researchers at UPS, University of Washington and Louisiana State University.)

Q: And what are you doing with that Google camera I’ve seen attached to your boats?

A: We are doing Google Street View of the entire Mississippi River. We figure it will take two runs down the river to get 90 percent of the river mapped. It’s been very interesting to take this machine because it looks really funny, so we get a lot of people wondering what it is. And we get to compile all this data so people who can’t experience the river will still be able to go on Google Maps and see what it looks like.

Q: When will the rest of us be able to experience this?

A: Once we give them (Google) all of the SD cards (one per day) I think it takes them about 6-10 months to process. So it will be a little while. But hopefully it will be up before we go on the trip next year.

Q: How exciting is it to be part of the first class to do this?

A: I consider myself very lucky. It’s an awesome opportunity, and I’ve met amazing people on the river. I hope future students are able to do the exact same thing with even better and bigger trips. And I hope we are inspiring other people to do this. Don’t dismiss the idea. Anybody can do this if they are just willing to pick up a paddle or oar.

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