Meet the Minnesotans paddling to protect our rivers

Hear from 3 Minnesotans who took the pollution fight into their own hands.
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Three Minnesotans are paddling to improve our waterways. These are their stories.

Three Minnesotans are paddling to improve our waterways. These are their stories.

Minnesota is known for its beautiful waters, but the hard truth is many of our lakes and streams are full of pollution.

A body of water is considered “impaired” if it fails to meet one or more water quality standards – the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency says about 40 percent of our lakes and streams meet that definition.

If we want to preserve our waterways for future generations, experts say the time to act is now. These three Minnesotans are doing something about it.

Waterway Jay, 33

Paddling for:Paddle for Progress, to raise awareness of the threats facing the health of our state’s freshwater ecosystems.

Start: July 6, Watonwan River. 

End: November/December, "Wherever the trip takes me." 

Total miles: Roughly 4,500.

Gustafson is paddling the entirety of Minnesota’s 34 state water trails.

Gustafson is paddling the entirety of Minnesota’s 34 state water trails.

Jay Gustafson fell in love with paddling at 12 years old while on a trip to the Boundary Waters with his dad. After graduating college, he moved to Minnesota to continue pursuing his passion. Last year, he paddled the entire Mississippi River from source to sea.

It was on that trip that Gustafson, aka "Waterway Jay," felt a calling to do more. The rivers he loved so much were becoming visibly more polluted each year. Shortly after that trip, Gov. Mark Dayton announced a "Year of Water Action." It was the catalyst for Gustafson, and Paddle for Progress was born.

"I just knew I had to do this, and the timing in my life was right. I decided if not now, when?" he told GoMN.

This July, Gustafson pushed off on his first project: paddling all 34 state water trails. Along the way, he collects water and sediment readings for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to help officials track the health of our rivers.

"Minnesota is known for pristine water – that's true in places like the Boundary Waters, but we've got work to do in the rest of the state," Gustafson says.

Why paddle for your cause? My biggest hope from this trip is for people to realize that these waterways are in their community, and they're great places to paddle, swim, fish, whatever you're into – it's not just lakes Minnesotans can do those things on. 

But health of our rivers is in jeopardy. They're all polluted or contaminated in some way. We all need to step up if we are going to turn the corner and save this amazing resource.

Do people ever join you? Not yet, but I would like to meet up with the guys in Adventure Stewardship Alliance since we'll all be on the Mississippi later this fall.

But anybody is welcome to join me, whether they want to come and share why they care or just enjoy the water. This trip is less about me and more about Minnesotans and our water. 

Do you carry any unique supplies? A bible and a Secci tube for collecting sediment readings.

Best moment of your trip so far? Every moment of this trip is a blessing becauseI get to see the entire state in a way that you could never otherwise see it.

One moment that stands out was Monday, when I was going down the Watonwan. It's really pretty there, there's bluffs, and I saw a lot of wildlife that day. It's hours like that, paddling where the river is open and moving quick, there's great scenery – that's the type of stuff I hope other people are experiencing and want to preserve.

Gustafson encourages Minnesotans to attend Dayton's 10 town hall meetings about water quality. You can follow Waterway Jay on Facebook. Donate here to help support his cause.

Paul Twedt, 31, & Michael Anderson, 26

Paddling for:Three Rivers Project, environmental and cultural exploration by canoe of the Mississippi, Minnesota, and Namekagon/St. Croix rivers.

Start: June 13, St. Croix River. 

End: Oct. 31, Mississippi River.

Total miles: 1,200.

Every moment we're alive we have an opportunity to leave a positive trace on the world, whether it's carrying a bag of groceries for an old lady crossing the street, or collecting hundreds of pounds of trash from Minnesota rivers.

Paul Twedt and Michael Anderson's current mission is the latter. The co-founders of Adventure Stewardship Alliance are paddling three of Minnesota's proudest rivers this year – the St. Croix, Minnesota, and Mississippi – gathering every last bit of trash they find along the way.

Their journey started with 237 miles of the St. Croix in June. During the 15-day trip, the guys collected 736 pounds of trash.

Now finishing up on the second leg, they've removed over 4,400 pounds on the Minnesota River – stuff like styrofoam containers, a safe, eight soccer balls, a snowblower, and so, so many old tires.

They'll take a break before tackling the Mississippi in September, finishing up in Winona right around Halloween. 

Why paddle for your cause? Anderson: Water is life, it's one of the most important things on this earth. We want to help heal the water and leave a positive trace for future generations.

Twedt: It's really important for Minnesotans to make sure the water leaving our state is clean, because what goes in here flows down all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. If we don't care and we send polluted water, why should anyone further down the river care?

What do you do with all the trash? Twedt: It's unique every time. We meet families at boat landings and when we tell them what we're doing, they offer to take it. Or we go to businesses along the river and ask them – they've always said yes. Other times we've connected with the DNR at boat landings and such.

Have you found anything that you wanted to keep? Anderson: A fishing tackle box with lures that we plan on giving to a friend. It's nice to bring some of these items back to life, whether it's something fun or practical.

Twedt: Funny you should ask. I just found a miniature rainbow pegasus – like a flying unicorn with a rainbow tail and hair. I also kept a domino for some reason. It just felt right.

Do you carry any unique supplies? Twedt: Thick leather gloves, hip waders, and trash grabbers. Also, a library of naturalist guides on virtually everything: trees, foraging edibles, birds, stars, fish.

Standout moment of your trip so far? Anderson: We had just unloaded 430 pounds of trash and were almost to camp, so our canoes were empty and felt so good and graceful, it was that golden hour. But then we come up to this massive log jam, like 100 feet wide and 40 feet long. And it was completely loaded with trash.

We proceeded to clean up for 45 minutes and ended up with another 135 pounds. After paddling away it was just one of those moments that I realized this is why we're out here.

What's next? Twedt: We've been kicking around some ideas on an adventure triathlon – canoeing, biking, backpacking all around Minnesota, meeting people as we go and leaving places better than we found them.

Anderson: Another thing we're doing is the Stewardship 365 Program, an alliance of people who take care of places they love and document their efforts through photos and blog posts. We especially want to inspire young people and are thinking about an apprenticeship program.

To learn more about Adventure Stewardship Alliance or donate to support their journey, click here.

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