Thursday, January 30, 2014

How to Help a Big River

By Anna Waugh, Project Manager and Volunteer Coordinator

The Mississippi River Fund connects people to the Mississippi River through river experiences and builds support for our national park, the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area. 

January Newsletter- Connect Today with Yesterday and TomorrowBut it's a big river - so it's great to have good partners

The Mississippi River Fund is a member of the Mississippi River Network. Comprised of nearly 50 non-profits from the ten states that border the Mississippi River, each organization has a different mission – but we all work toward a broader goal of a healthier Mississippi River. When these partners work well together the collective impact of all of our missions help us accomplish even larger goals. 

A few years back when the Mississippi River Fund joined the network, we got in on the ground floor of their 1 Mississippi Campaign. The campaign engages regular citizens with the river and asks them to take small but meaningful actions that impact the river’s health. Here in the Twin Cities, there are many ways to get involved – from championing policies that support water quality to volunteer events that support critical habitat. And that’s good news because according to a recent MinnPost article, the Mississippi River is crucial to the future of the MSP region

Each member organization helps people connect to the river in different ways. And we all know that it will take a lot of actions from many people and organizations. At the Mississippi River Fund, we have great opportunities to help the river and explore it year round – we hope you’ll join us. 

Here’s how:

Get to Know the River
Explore the Mississippi River. Check out for a list of just some of the great programs and events in our national park on the Mississippi River! Attend the upcoming Mississippi River Forum field trip to the City of Minneapolis’ Water Treatment Plant. Or get outside for a family-friendly snowshoe event at Coldwater Spring, our newest national park site, just minutes south of Minnehaha Falls. Thanks to REI for their support of Coldwater Spring.

Volunteer on the River 

Join us for an upcoming River Action Volunteer Event (RAVE). These fun volunteer events pair a recreational activity like snowshoeing, canoeing, or rafting, with a habitat restoration event. On our February 8th Snowshoe RAVE, we’ll go to Macalester College’s Ordway Field Station for a snowshoe hike and to remove invasive plants from the prairie. Thanks to Patagonia  for their support of the RAVE program. 

Want to wait for warmer weather? Sign up your church, school, or corporate group today for a fun volunteer outing on the river this summer. We are taking applications now for volunteer groups interested in half-day volunteer events in our national park. Call 651-291-9119 for more information or visit our  volunteer page.

Don’t see something you’d love to do? Check out other ways to support us or find other actions to help the River with one of our partners through the 1 Mississippi Campaign.

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Joys of Being a Junior Ranger

By Kate Havelin, Community Outreach

OK, kids, step away from the TVs, it’s time to earn your badges.

I’m talking Junior Ranger badges—the small, shiny bits of bling that kids ages 5 to 12 get after they complete an activity booklet at a national park. Here in the Twin Cities, kids can earn their badges at the Mississippi River Visitor Center (located in the lobby of the Science Museum of Minnesota in downtown St. Paul); Mill City Museum; and the East Coon Rapids Dam Visitor Center; and this month, kids can come to Coldwater Spring to earn their badge outdoors, at Junior Ranger Day January 18, 1 pm.

So what’s the thrill of getting a gold (OK, gold plastic) badge?  For lots of kids and their families, the badge is a coveted collectible. You can’t buy these badges in a store. Kids have to do a little work to get them. Becoming a Junior Ranger gives kids a chance to have some fun while they learn about a national park.
Ranger Brian helps two Junior Rangers 
At this month’s Junior Ranger Day, kids and their families can become nature’s detectives, seeking out animal tracks and scoping out the signs of wildlife. We’ll play matching games with animal footprints. Thanks to the Jeffers Family Foundation, families can sip cocoa while they play in the park. It’s free fun for all, no signup needed.

You never need a reservation to earn a Junior Ranger Badge, and there’s no limits on how many badges a kid can collect. The National Parks Foundation notes that there are more than 200 Junior Ranger programs nationwide. I volunteer at the Mississippi Visitor Center and see families who make a special trip to the Visitor Center so their kids can earn their latest badge.

It’s cool to see kids filling out the Junior Ranger booklets. At the Visitor Center, they play a mussel matching game, and measure their footprints as they step across a floor graphic, a giant aerial photograph of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area. Kids carefully count their footsteps as they walk along the birds’-eye view of the river, trying to find out just how big our national park is here. (Spoiler alert—the park spans 72 miles of the river, from Dayton to Hastings). It’s amazing to see just how focused kids, from preschoolers to teenagers, can get when they’re tracking their footprints to count the miles. Once kids complete their Junior Ranger booklets, it’s often picture time. Parents like to take pictures of their kids with a National Park Service ranger, as the kids take the Junior Ranger pledge, “As a Junior Ranger of the Mississippi River, I promise to explore the river, learn about the river, and protect the river.”

The Junior Ranger activities vary at each park. At the Mill City Museum, for example, kids learn about the Minneapolis riverfront, Mill Ruins Park, as well as the city’s explosive history of flour milling. Kids count the tracks in the museum’s train shed; play I Spy, Fill in the Blanks, and Scavenger Hunts to find answers to why the Stone Arch Bridge was built, what was stored in metal tubes, and what caused the mill’s fires. At Coon Rapids, kids look for signs of some of the park’s abundant wildlife then write a short story about one animal.

So kids, it’s simple. It’s time to play games, answer questions, and earn badges. You too can be a Junior Ranger! Come to Coldwater, and earn a badge on Saturday, January 18.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Playing Outside in January

by Mary Murray, National Park Ranger

January in Minnesota: a time and place to grumble about the weather or to embrace the possible joys of cold and snow. I am the embracing type and this is why I am so excited about the park’s winter outdoor clubs. Thanks to a grant from the National Park Foundation, with support from Disney, and the Mississippi River Fund, the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area has been giving elementary students from Saint Paul Public Schools a Ticket to Ride to their national park. This ‘ticket’ includes bus rides for fall field trips, fishing clubs, and winter outdoor clubs. In total the program reaches over 600 students with in-depth programming on the Mississippi River.
Girls on a Ticket to Ride field trip.
I want to share about the park's winter outdoor clubs and why they are important for keeping Minnesota winter traditions and children strong. The winter outdoor clubs’ goals are to get students excited and engaged with winter outdoor exploration. These seem like pretty easy goals to reach, given that kids naturally want to run and play outside. The challenge comes from the fact that we live in society where the ‘outdoors’ are becoming removed from everyday life. In fact, the outdoors are a scary place for some and in winter time the outdoors are often viewed as both scary and unpleasant.

The outdoor clubs work to challenge these views. Yes, cold temperatures and wind chills deserve consideration in terms of dress and time spent outside. And, yes our winter so far has been full of very cold temperatures. But there are many days when you can still go out and play. We live in Minnesota; if our children don’t learn how to have fun outside in winter this starts a bad trend of kids spending almost all of their time indoors. Nature becomes an abstract concept and inactivity increases.
Outdoor Club students practice walking like a deer, underneath a real deer hide.
The outdoor clubs give students a foundation for winter fun that they can use their whole lives. The clubs start with a ‘winter fashion show’ where students walk down the classroom runway wearing as many layers as they can fit on. We emphasize that layers don’t need to be expensive; pajama pants under sweat pants work just fine.
Violet walks down the "winter runway."
In addition to dressing for winter success, the club teaches students about Minnesota winter traditions, like tracking animals in the snow, going snowshoeing, and making snow angels. We show students how to get to some of the best places in the cities for winter fun: Mississippi River parks. We also are inviting families to join students for special outings, like our upcoming Junior Ranger Day and the REI Winter Trails Day, so families can participate in some of the activities their kids have been enjoying, and hopefully begin incorporating winter outdoor fun into their family lives.

Instead of seeing the winter ice, snow, and cold as a burden, the outdoor clubs work to keep Minnesota traditions of winter exploration alive. We know that keeping families engaged with the outdoors will help them stay active and healthy as well as working to develop stewards of nature.

A large part of the outdoor club’s success is thanks to partnerships and volunteer leadership. Dedicated National Park Service volunteers are joining and co-leading events so that we can reach more students. Our hope is to be able to expand the outdoor clubs with the continued help and support of volunteers.

Furthermore, we are able to support outdoor club programming that lasts beyond winter with fall and spring fishing clubs through a partnership with the Department of Natural Resources’ MinnAqua program. Partnerships and volunteers are some of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Areas’ biggest strengths. Thanks in large part to strong partnerships, our park reaches over 20,000 students a year in educational programming, including a growing number of winter programs. Wow!
Volunteer leaders make our programs successful.
To close, I would like to ask you to also keep our Minnesota winter traditions strong. Find a day this week when it's above zero, put on a whole bunch of layers, and go do something outside with your family that you can only do in winter!

For more ideas on winter fun, join us for Winter Trails Day at Fort Snelling State Park on Saturday, January 11, and bookmark for opportunities to experience your national park all year long! 

Friday, January 3, 2014

Reflecting on Steamboats From a Plane

As we head into the New Year, many of you have perhaps just returned from visiting family and friends across the country for the holidays. Driving across the flat plains or taking wing from one of the coasts to return home provides us with an opportunity to reflect on past travelers. Unlike today’s modern world, the early pioneers could not pass easily from one coast to another or through the interior of the country.

Though we often hear the settlement stories of covered wagons lumbering across the American west, we forget that many early pioneers traveled instead by steamboat. All across America, cities as diverse as Boston, New Orleans, San Francisco and Minneapolis-St Paul are united in a shared natural heritage grounded in the water features around which they were founded. Even though we don’t use water transportation nearly as much these days, the legacy of these “water highways” can still be seen in the landscape all around us.

Waits in airport lounges through weather delays with crowds of Christmas travelers may seem endless, but most of us can expect to reach home within a day. In comparison, settlers struggled for months to reach new lands, carrying many of the items they would need to build a new life with them. Rivers provided an entryway to carry people and goods from the American coasts into the interior.
1936 Image of Lower Landing, Saint Paul

Steamboat traffic on the Mississippi grew exponentially in the years before the Civil War. During the 1800s Lower Landing, located near modern day Jackson Street in Saint Paul, was one of the busiest steamboat landings in the United States and tens of thousands of immigrants arrived in Minnesota through this port. Saint Paul was the northern port for the Mississippi because rocks and boulders in the river impeded navigation above that point.

A ride aboard a steamboat could be a real adventure. First class accommodations offered fine dining and luxurious rooms. Some had ballrooms for dancing and a few turned into river casinos offering all types of gambling. Author George Merrick describes the excitement of a steamboat ride from his youth in his book Old Times on the Upper Mississippi: Recollections of a Steamboat Pilot from 1854 to 1863:

Saloon of Mississippi River Steamboat "Princess", by M Adrien Persac
“That steamboat ride from Rock Island to Prescott [WI] was one long holiday excursion for us two small and lively boys from Michigan. There was so much to see and in so many different directions at once, that it was impossible to grasp it all, although we scampered over the deck to get different viewing points. We met dozens of boats, going back to St. Louis or Galena after further loads of immigrants and freight…There were boys with fish for sale, fish larger than any inhabiting the waters of Michigan streams, sturgeons only excepted, and this promised well for the fun in store when we should reach our journey’s end."

Life aboard steamboats was not all fun. For passengers who could not afford rich accommodations, the trip could be a crowded and unpleasant affair with few to no amenities. The ships carried several hundred passengers at a time and the people aboard faced dangers from cholera and typhoid to fires and explosions. Boiler explosions and fires killed thousands of passengers and many steamboats were destroyed this way. When Mark Twain’s brother Henry Clemens perished in a steamboat boiler explosion, the author wrote a letter to his brother's wife, “For forty-eight hours I labored at the bedside of my poor burned and bruised but uncomplaining brother...and then the star of my hope went out and left me in the gloom of despair.” Steamboat racing also led to explosions in the days before river regulation as steamboat companies made huge profits by pushing the limits of weight and speed. Ships’ boilers would be stoked beyond their capabilities in an attempt to outrace other ships on the river. Scientific American reported one such disaster this way, “There is no mystery as to the cause of this explosion; the boiler was managed as with an intent to commit suicide.” Races on the river also caused collisions.
Explosion of the Steamboat Helen McGregor, by Scattergood

Ships faced other dangers like snags and rocks, which could dump passengers and cargo into the muddy waters of the Mississippi. An early winter freeze was another hazard that could trap an unsuspecting steamboat captain if he was too late to pilot to his winter quarters.

As the number of steamboats and people grew on the Mississippi, the river was altered more and more. Early steamboats required wood fuel, and the banks of the Mississippi were soon stripped of trees. This caused erosion of soils into the river, creating dangerous, muddy conditions and sandbars. To combat low water levels and soil deposits, parts of the river were dredged and wing dams were installed. It was the job of the roustabouts to push the vessels over sandbars, off snags, and through ice. Locks and dams did not come to the river until the early 1900s, well after the heyday of steamboats had passed.

The great steamboat era ended as rail was installed through the Midwest. Rail provided a cheaper, safer option for moving goods and people. That people could decide where to lay the rails was another obvious advantage over river travel that was dictated by the whims of nature. When the Minneapolis milling industry grew from Saint Anthony Falls, it was the expansion of rail that allowed flour to be transported to market, not the river.

We have more options to travel today than ever before, but much of the infrastructure that was built surrounding the Mississippi still endures. That we have two Twin Cities here stems from the fact that the river was not navigable to steamboats north of Saint Paul. Though now the rail era has passed too, it also left its mark on the land.  Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary was built on an old rail yard. Cars dominate today, but new options for biking and walking are becoming more and more popular as the infrastructure to support these types of travel improve.

Flying back from a recent trip to visit family, I viewed the Mississippi from above as it emerged as a mighty feature of the Twin Cities landscape — one that both entwines and divides the sister cities. Ports along the Mississippi that have long been forgotten once strengthened the community and the economy, and the ingenuity of steam powered engines allowed travelers from around the world reach new lands quicker and more economically.

Nice Ride bikes offer new biking infrastructure in
Minneapolis-St. Paul
In the settlement era, colonizing the west was the challenge of the day – reaching new places, and putting down roots. When we look back, that mission was accomplished using the transportation tools available – steamboats, rail, and horseback. Facing the challenges of the future – like climate change, job security, and growing urban populations, we must build our transportation infrastructure in ways that are consistent with the goals of the future. To move goods and people economically and sustainably from one place to another has always been a challenge for mankind. It would amaze an early pioneer that I flew from Boston to Minneapolis in four hours last Tuesday, yet the people of the future will likely be shocked at how much fuel that jet used. If the legacy of steamboats on the Mississippi River tells us anything, it’s that investments in transportation infrastructure shape the landscape for generations.

Which begs the question, what legacy do you think we should be planning today?