By Ruth Oppedahl, Natural Resources Foundation

This article was originally published in the Winter 2015 edition of Bridges, the member newsletter of the Natural Resources Foundation.

“It turns out that that image of a small red kayak on a huge river was actually a spark that drew others in.” Photo by Barb Barzen.

When my mother turned 50 years old, she joined a group of women who were training to hike the Grand Canyon. She filled my brother’s Boy Scout backpack—a heavy canvas thing—with bricks and walked the hills around our suburban neighborhood in Iowa to get prepared. Her euphoria on doing that strenuous hike down and back up the Bright Angel Trail is something I will never forget. She talked about sleeping out in the desert under the open sky—such an experience for a Midwesterner!

I can’t imagine doing a hike like that with the tremendous heat, the stress on my knees, the backpack rubbing my hips. But in hindsight, paddling the Wisconsin River was my version of a mid-life challenge. Part of the message of my trip was to find your river, your canyon, your prairie or forest, your way to enjoy the outdoors.

Shortly after that Grand Canyon trip my mom started forgetting things. She wasn’t able to find the right word, blurred what she was reading in books with the real world and eventually headed down the path of early onset dementia. A few years later at her memorial service, my friends took spruce seedlings home to plant in her memory.

One of those friends, Meta Reigel, updated me every few years of my “mom’s tree,” which she had planted at her cabin. During the drive up to the source of the Wisconsin River I got a text from Meta that she was looking at the headwaters and saying a blessing for the trip. She had taken a photo of my mom’s tree, which I carried with me in a Ziploc bag. What a treasure. The redwoods of California, the Boundary Waters of Minnesota, the swamps of Florida, were all places that evoked memories of my mother and my father. Even though they had never had the chance to see these places, I was going to wring out as much meaning and beauty as my senses could stand on this trip, as a tribute to them.

One of Ruth’s challenges on the river was getting her kayak over shallow waters and “rock gardens.” Photo by Mike Mossman.

As I headed into the wind for the hundredth time, I gave thanks for the opportunity to take my vacation to paddle the Wisconsin River. For 18 mornings all I had to do was wake up and paddle another stretch of our namesake river. For 18 days I immersed myself in the weather, the water and the people—somehow this trip brought out the best in everything.

Foremost it brought out the best in me. As a middle-aged deskbound administrator, I’ve never felt healthier and stronger than when I pulled my boat through shallow water, lining it through the rocky remains of the Brokaw Dam. Early sunsets got me in my sleeping bag by 8:00 p.m. so I got plenty of rest. My heart was full from the help others offered, whether it was a ride around a dam, supper or a shared experience. I was in a good mood all the time (chocolate helped ensure that).

The I Heart Wisconsin: River Trip also showed me the best conservationists in our state: those who have spent their careers protecting our air and land, water and wildlife, as well as volunteers who count birds, restore wetlands, measure water quality, clear debris and hazards from the river and agitate for protection of our waters.

I planned to do the trip alone, a symbolic statement that one person can make a difference to help our natural resources.

Foundation member and retired Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources employee Susan Watson joined Ruth during the earlier part of the trip. Photo by Ruth Oppedahl.

But it turns out that that image of a small red kayak on a huge river was actually a spark that drew others in. In every town, I met helpful river angels, and usually a reporter to tell great the conservation stories and to share my concern about funding reductions that threaten our state’s conservation legacy. On one hand I talked about state natural areas where the Foundation supports management work and highlighted donors who have created endowments for Wisconsin; on the other hand I had to describe the cuts to our state parks and conservation nonprofits.

One reporter asked me how paddling a river can save our state’s conservation legacy. I was taken aback. To me it seemed obvious that we protect what we love. If this trip caused me and others to love Wisconsin more, then we would work harder and find more ways to protect it.

Every night I sent photos and videos via cell phone to our Madison office. Similar to the time capsule on the Voyagar sending greetings from earth to spacefarers that might find them in the distant future, I was a one-way communicator oblivious of the I Heart Wisconsin story that was forming along the way.

Ruth dictates her daily audio blog post outside of the Aldo Leopold Shack. Photo by Mike Mossman.

It wasn’t until I returned home that I learned that others had vicariously experienced what it’s like to paddle in six inches of gin-clear water over shining mollusks; and paddle amidst golden wild rice stalks while ducks and coots flap their wings and chatter in the late September sun; and learn that the Wisconsin River was once covered with scum and pollution before the Clean Water Act set regulatory standards for wastewater emissions; and battle the winds in the washing machine waters of Lake Wisconsin; and feel the sun reflect off the smooth surface of the Mississippi River in the lee of the Iowa bluffs, not wanting to end the trip, yet excited to accomplish the goal.

What do we do with that solo, yet shared, experience? I hope it lifts the spirits of all of us who love Wisconsin. I hope it causes us all to become more informed voters, more generous donors and more involved citizen scientists. I hope the trip reminds me and others to go outside and let nature help us figure out our own answer Mary Oliver’s question: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Ruth celebrates her trip as she pulls up to her stop at Wyalusing State Park at the end of her 18-day adventure. Photo by Lindsay Renick Mayer.