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Explorer to travel Mississippi River, share experience with kids

MONTE DRAPER \ BEMIDJI PIONEER Explorer Dean Jacobs takes time off the Mississippi River to tell Mira Carpenter and her grandfather Ron Carpenter about his adventure swimming with piranhas in the Amazon River.

BEMIDJI -- Dean Jacobs has swum with piranhas, visited a sphinx in Egypt and has gone scuba diving at the Great Barrier Reef.

But northern Minnesota will always be a memorable place for the globe-trotter and Nebraska native.

"Minnesota was the only place that I went on a family vacation with my family to Otter Tail County," Jacobs said, wearing a tan hiking vest and bandana around his neck. "So I have a nostalgic connection to Minnesota."

Jacobs returned to the region this week to start a quest down the Mississippi River. As part of his "Three Rivers, Three Continents" project, he will gather experiences, photographs and stories about the Mississippi, Nile and Amazon rivers to share with kids in the classroom.

"I take these experiences and I change them into teachable moments ... to give students a different view of the world than they necessarily see in television," he said.

Jacobs would have never seen that view of the world had he not made a fateful choice 12 years ago: to quit his well-paying job at the pharmaceutical company Pfizer Inc. and hit the road. He wrote a book about his nearly two-year journey, in which he traveled to Australia, Indonesia, Africa, western Europe and the Middle East.

Jacobs said his decision to leave his job, which he called the bravest thing he's done in his life, was prompted by a period of reflection and a desire to pursue a childhood dream.

"When I was 9 years old, I rode my Stingray bicycle all the way to the next town because I was curious about exploring," Jacobs said. "That part got buried under the hamster wheel of the corporate world."

Jacobs said he hopes to teach kids to "not let fear stop you from doing what you want to do." He hopes sharing his experiences reinforce that message.

Jacobs said his goal is not to simply travel the 2,320 miles by canoe alone to the Mississippi in New Orleans.

"There's plenty of people who canoe the Mississippi," said Jacobs, whose own canoe sat on top of his green pickup full of supplies in the parking lot. "But I want to capture the essence of the Mississippi by having conversations with people and learning what the Mississippi means to them."

Jacobs' journey began Thursday at Lake Itasca, and his only concrete goals at this point are to be in St. Louis by September and New Orleans a month after that.

He said his first impression of life on the Mississippi was learning about the concept of Minnesota Nice when a group of blueberry pickers he had just met gave him a jug from their harvest. Having visited 52 countries and encountering countless people in his travels, Jacobs said the phenomenon is very real.

"Everyone here has been extremely friendly," he said. "Not overly, but authentically friendly.

"It also tells me something about the culture of the people of Minnesota."

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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