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Mighty Mississippi bound

MONTE DRAPER | BEMIDJIPIONEER Eleven members of Wild River Academy began their trek down the mighty Mississippi River on Wednesday morning at Lake Bemidji State Park. The paddlers will produce a documentary of their experiences.

BEMIDJI -- An intrepid expedition of 11 canoers set out into the mist overhanging Lake Bemidji State Park on Wednesday morning on the first leg of their 75-day, 2,300-mile journey down the Mississippi River to New Orleans.

Natalie Warren, founder of Wild River Academy will help lead the expedition, dubbed "Paddle Forward." She said the Mississippi trip will be the longest yet of about 60 trips Warren and her colleagues at Wild River have led. With a focus on watershed education, Paddle Forward will be filming a documentary about the trip and the communities the paddlers will encounter, the expedition's website has a space where classrooms can follow the group and there will also be a virtual tour of the Mississippi based on images the canoers post, Warren said.

"We're hoping to just learn a lot about the people who live on the river," Warren said. "Over 1 million people rely directly on the river for employment."

The group set out from Lake Bemidji because the water level near the actual headwaters in Itasca State Park is currently too low for canoes, Warren said. They will encounter only mild rapids during their first day in Minnesota, with the water never getting rougher than Class I rapids during the trip, she said.

More troublesome are the 29 dams and various pollution hazards they will deal with as they go from the more recreational-use portions of the Mississippi in the Midwest to the more industrial portions in the South. At one point in Louisiana, part of the group will go through a river fork that's known as "Cancer Alley," Warren said.

When the group encounters a dam, they can radio ahead for lock workers to open up a passageway. What will the canoers do when they get to a polluted stretch of river?

"Not touch the water," Warren said with a laugh.