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UK Alumna Hopes to Break Record, do Environmental Work While 'Paddling On' the Mississippi

By Taylor McClure

(July 9, 2015) — University of Kentucky alumna Alyssum Pohl, a 2004 biology graduate and former Gaines Fellow, has embarked on a journey from source to sea kayaking the Mississippi River while documenting water pollution. The journey is a self-motivated effort to increase awareness about the health of our rivers and oceans. 

The trip will take Pohl an estimated three months. She started her trek June 27, in Lake Itasca, Minnesota, the base of the Mississippi River, and will end it in the Gulf of Mexico near New Orleans, 2,552 miles downstream. Pohl is calling the project "Paddle On!" which references her verve to continue making a positive difference in the world, despite constant challenges. 

"This is an adventure, but my goal is to make it a meaningful one," Pohl said. "This is not a vacation. I will be working hard every day. I will be collecting water quality samples, photographing plastic waste, doing beach clean-ups with local river conservation groups, speaking with school children and legislators along the way about the environmental state of their waterways. I believe it is important that I share my experience and the visible and chemical health of our nation’s largest river."

While this expedition involves setting up camp nightly, portaging her vessel around 29 locks and dams, avoiding the fast-moving barges and ships in the lower Mississippi and paddling against the wind, Pohl goes beyond simple exploration with this project. With degrees and work experience in science and policy, Pohl will be recording both qualitative (story, photos, video) and quantitative (such as pH, temperature, turbidity, dissolved oxygen) water quality measures, and will share her process and results for educational purposes. John Sullivan, a retired water quality biologist from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, paddled the Mississippi recording water quality, and Pohl will be repeating his methodology.

Pohl will keep the public updated with findings from her trip via her blog. She has already written about the first few days of her trip describing the weather conditions, as well as the people she has met along the way and what they have contributed to her journey.

"The first day was marked by shallow water and lots of mud. I had to walk my boat through some of the areas where it was just too shallow, and I almost lost my Teva several times because the mud was stronger than the Velcro on it. I ended up going barefoot most of the way."

Over the past two years, Pohl, who earned her master's degree in international environmental policy, worked on coastal resiliency issues as one of three National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Digital Coast Fellows. This background provided her with rare insight into understanding what local, state and federal elected officials, and natural resource manager's deal with, and their level of understanding the environmental problems they face.

"What I really enjoyed in that position was working across disciplines, using storytelling as a means to educate diverse stakeholders about best practices," Pohl said.

Pohl has arranged collaboration with artists, scientists and legislators to ensure that "Paddle On!" is worthwhile to a variety of communities and interests. For instance, Lindsey Wohlman, a sculptor from Lafayette, Colorado, looks forward to receiving some of the plastic waste that Pohl cleans from the river, with which she will create ocean-inspired sculptures.

At UK, Pohl was a member of the Honors Program and participated in the Emerging Leader Institute. As part of her Gaines Fellowship, the magna cum laude graduate completed a thesis titled "Girning and its cultural relevance."

By completing this project, Pohl, 35, will set a world record as the youngest woman to solo kayak the Mississippi River. In order for this project to become reality, Pohl set up a Kickstarter. Through this website not only did people share their support, but Pohl hopes to share her progress. Pohl also has a blog and Facebook page set up to chronicle her experience.  

A native of Lexington, Pohl currently resides in Mount Rainier, Maryland.