Beginning mid-August, Margo Pellegrino will paddle her outrigger canoe from Chicago to New Orleans with the hopes of raising awareness about water quality issues. The journey will take her through the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal (a human-made “hydrologic connection between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River basins”),¹ down the Illinois, Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, to Kentucky Lake, the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, and finally into the Gulf of Mexico. Clearly, logistical planning for such a trip could be a challenge (more on that later!), but the question I get most often when I talk to others about Margo’s journey is, “why?”  I asked her the same question and her reasons are pretty simple actually, yet incredibly inspiring.

 “[My motivation is] my kids and my desire to do the most amount of good with the limited time we get to do it… If we don’t wake up to what we are doing to our ocean, our rivers, our fresh water resources, our drinking water, we cannot hope for humanity to continue. That we need clean water for life is pretty stinking basic. Water impacts every single human and living thing on this planet. It is, in my mind, our biggest most pressing concern above all else. For without it, we simply cannot live. And it needs to be clean.”

Photo credit: Ruth Petzold

Photo credit: Ruth Petzold

Margo hopes that throughout her solo paddle, she will draw attention to the future of water and the dangerous impacts that contaminated water has on humans. And she has witnessed first-hand the damage that has been done to many of our waterways.  In fact, she has spent A LOT of time (many,many months) on the water.  She’s paddled from Trenton to Newark, New York to Chicago and Miami to Maine. When I asked her what the common problems that these different waterways face, she replied:

“Run-off is across the board the biggest, most glaringly ugly issue impacting our waterways, as well as the problems of plastic debris. Plastic bits and pieces and bottles, balloons, bags, you name it, you find it when you’re paddling. Run-off issues present themselves with little oil slicks in marinas and storm drains as well as stinky water (the water literally stinks) and crazy weed and algae growth.” 

The run-off Margo is referring to most often comes from agriculture. Excess nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus (used as fertilizer, for example) accumulate in wetlands and are transported downstream into large bodies of water. The Mississippi River is a major transporter of excess nutrients, which ultimately result in what is called the “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.  The Dead Zone is the focus of 1 Mississippi’s August 2016 newsletter so stay tuned for more information! You can also check out 1 Mississippi Policy Manager, Andy Kimmel’s, latest blog called Dead Zone “Fun”.

Plastic litter is also a clear problem and 1 Mississippi’s summer Intern, Calvin Price, is in the process of writing a blog series on the dangerous effects of plastic to the Mississippi River and other waterways. Check out his first blog here and stay tuned for two additional blogs!

So, what are the logistical challenges that Margo will need to overcome to have a successful trip? “Right out of the gate the challenge of the electrified fish fence has me a bit concerned,” she said. “I’m still looking for a vessel to sleep on and carry me over that thing.”

Electrified fish fences? A vessel to sleep on and to carry her over the fish fence? I had never thought of such things! So I did some digging and found that electric fish barriers really do exist (not that I ever doubted you, Margo!). According to the US Army Corps of Engineers, “electric barriers are operated to deter the inter-basin establishment of Asian carp and other fish via the [Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal] by maintaining an electric field in the water.”²

Margo would most certainly need to be transported—via a much larger, motorized vessel—over these fish barriers in the Sanitary and Ship Canal.

Photo credit: US Army Corps of Engineers

Photo credit: US Army Corps of Engineers

But for Margo, the positive impacts of her journey outweigh the challenges. Margo hopes to not only raise awareness about the dangers affecting our waterways, but she also is very excited to engage with communities and organizations that live along the rivers she’s traversing.  In fact, she says that “meeting people who care about these issues refreshes the spirit.”

If you would like to help Margo complete her ambitious journey, click here. She also invites you to come out and paddle with her when she’s in your area!

We at 1 Mississippi would like to wish the best of luck to Margo! We appreciate her dedication to the Mississippi River and water resources in general.

Brooke Thurau
1 Mississippi Campaign Coordinator

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¹US Army Corps of Engineers. “Electric Barriers”. Accessed July 26, 2016.

²US Army Corps of Engineers. “Electric Barriers”. Accessed July 26, 2016.