Adventurers rowing old-fashioned wooden boats down the Mississippi are helping LSU scientists study the river in a new way.
This fall, rowers from the OAR Northwest organization piloted wooden boats all 2,320 miles of the Mississippi, collecting dozens of water samples on behalf of LSU researcher J. Cameron Thrash, who is studying the waterway's microscopic organisms.
The field work from the small Seattle-based nonprofit is helping researchers do work they couldn't afford to do alone.
"From my perspective, they are indispensable," said Thrash. "You can't conduct this kind of operation with a small laboratory."
The research focuses on the tributaries that flow into the Mississippi. OAR's rowers stopped along their trip to take multiple samples bound for Thrash's lab, where he will measure bacteria and microscopic eukaryotes, another single-celled organism.
This Mississippi River study breaks from Thrash's previous work, which focused on the ocean — especially the Gulf of Mexico.
Oceans are studied more thoroughly than rivers in this kind of research, Thrash said, and the opportunity to work with OAR Northwest provided an affordable platform to study the entire length of America's most important waterway.
"Rivers are understudied systems when it comes to the types of biological information we are accustomed to obtaining from marine systems," Thrash said. "It’s not like no one has ever done anything like this. No one has done it this comprehensively for this big of a river."
In November, the OAR Northwest crew — the name stands for Ocean Adventure Rowing and Education — landed in Baton Rouge to meet with students at local middle and high schools to share their adventure and teach about the science of waterway study.
At Lee Magnet High School, they spent a morning meeting classes and showing students slideshows of their work and telling the story of traveling the modern waterway from its scenic, natural upper reaches to its industrial southern end.
The curious students asked questions about how often they get to shower and what it was like to row so far.
"If you can imagine being on a treadmill the whole time you're at school, that's how it is," said Calli Vasatka, a recent graduate of Puget Sound University and competitive rower who volunteered for the OAR team.
OAR's previous expeditions have found them racing across the northern Atlantic Ocean and exploring the Pacific Northwest. Jordan Hanssen, who helped found OAR more than a decade ago, sees the organization as a tool to get science in the public, where people can learn how their lives interact with rivers and oceans.
"It's designed to leave the lab and get into the community so people can make better decisions all around," said Jordan Hanssen, one of the founders of OAR Northwest.
Their primary vessel is a dory, a wooden, flat-bottomed boat historically used for fishing. Dories may be slower than other options, but they are dependable and can hold lots of gear.
The dories are also consistent. The crew was never late for a speaking engagement.
"They are comfortable to stay in the entire day," Hanssen said. "You can stand up in them, you can have lunch or breakfast going down the river."
The relationship between LSU and OAR Northwest developed from a chance meeting.
Hanssen spoke to a Seattle-area women's group about his travels and mentioned that his group was planning to row down the Mississippi. Thrash's mother, who was active in the group, connected the two.
"This is classic example of why mothers run the world," Thrash said.
Before Hanssen would agree to work with Thrash, he wanted to be sure their work would find an audience and get published in a scientific journal. Thrash ensured him it would. His career depends on publishing research.
"I’m a young faculty member," Thrash said. "I can’t waste time. I can’t waste money, either."
Last month, Thrash's lab submitted early findings from the 2014 trip for publication, and this year's trip will deepen their understanding of that data.
In the future, Thrash and Hanssen hope to develop a community of citizen scientists along the river who can take regular samples of river water. The school visits are one way to tap into an army of interested volunteers.
"I think that is very, very useful in terms of raising consciousness for taking care of our environment," Thrash said.