Mississippi River Plastic Pollution Initiative & Family

Just before leaving on expedition… a family photo with the camper (& saying ‘bye to the dogs)

The rumbling sound of the semis was constant. Two feet from us on either side. And trucks driving in and out all night… no one got much sleep. Even though I was very tired from just a few hours of sleep the night before when I was up into the wee hours of the morning charging batteries, setting up SD cards and hard drives, doing laundry and packing everything we might need (but not too much!) for the next three weeks of living as a family in a 19-foot camper.

We didn’t know where we were going to land that first night. But all I did know was that we needed to just get on the road… otherwise I felt like we would never leave. We ended up at a Rest Area outside of Auburn, Alabama, “boondocked”. This means we were not hooked up to power, water or sewer, but we could still run some lights from 12V battery power and flush the toilet with a water jug.

Semis very close on both sides with rumbling all night (also learning the camera).

That first night our youngest son (10 years old) immediately dubbed the camper, “the cramper” because the space is so small (19-feet long, 7-feet wide with the beds, table, “kitchen” bathroom, etc. leaves very little open space).

Prepping for a three week family expedition was a huge change after being home for over a year. Even as someone who used to travel 50-60% of my time for work, and a family who loved to take any kind of trip, it felt like we completely forgot how to pack. But Matt had all the knowledge of what we needed to do to make the camper ready, bungee cords across the cupboards, bins and boxes to hold things in place, where and how we would store the grill, the bikes, the… everything. I did laundry, packed all the kids clothes, medicines/vitamins, toiletries, and readied all the electronics for the work. We still forgot a few things, but we had the critical items for research and documenting the trip. I was so excited to be getting back to work in the field, and… to have my family with me.

Our eldest son giving a “cramper” tour. It is a really simple nice space for us all.

Integrating work and family has been a dream of mine since I was a pre-teen. I wasn’t sure I would have kids because I knew I loved experiments and science – I knew I wanted to be a researcher when I was very young. But I wasn’t sure how kids would fit into this picture, even though I really wanted them. I didn’t know any researchers or professors. I had never met anyone with a PhD until one person from our small town got his PhD and came back to speak to our physics class. I then figured, if he could do it, why couldn’t I? I became determined then to obtain a PhD in an environmental field.

Because I had never met anyone that was in a role that I wanted to be, I was inspired by fictional characters in books, especially Madeleine L’Engle books. I loved The Arm of the Starfish, A Ring of Endless Light, and where I saw myself as a mom, A Wrinkle in Time. The scene where Meg’s mom is in her lab connected to her house (a lab in her house!) and her kids see her there as they travel through time. And what is she doing? She is making stew for them over a Bunsen burner while she is working in the family lab (she and her husband are scientists). I immediately decided this was evidence that I could have a family and an environmental research career – and why not integrate them when appropriate?

As I wrote about in My Marine Debris Story, my career has been an incredible path that I am so grateful for. But I haven’t updated this blog since the launch of the Science paper I led in 2015. Someday, I will share more, but the important thing to note here is that I quickly ramped up to traveling 50% of my time by 2017 and was on that pace, until COVID. The blur of that year is another story, but I can say I have cherished every moment with my family. And when the possibility of field work emerged for our role in the Mississippi River Plastic Pollution Initiative, I knew I wanted to be there. I pondered how I could safely do that – when the travel I had done in 2020 had all been with a camper that we got last summer. Then it came to me – what if we all went in the camper from pilot site to pilot site for the entire stretch of the Mississippi? The project is community-based work, “family friendly” and most events open to the public. And at the end, we end up in the state I mostly grew up in, Minnesota, where we visit every year as a family to the banks of the river I know like the back of my hand, a tributary to the Mississippi – the Snake River near Pine City, MN.

I checked the calendar for our field work – it happened to correspond with the kid’s spring break. Excellent, that would minimize school days gone, the rest could be virtual. Having co-led teams for the Sea to Source: Ganges Expedition with the National Geographic Society in 2019, I knew I needed assistance with tracking litter and other technical deployment for this project. Well then, my family can help since we are already in a bubble together at home. Obstacle after obstacle was overcome and my new expedition team was formed… and ready to go from Athens, Georgia to Baton Rouge, Louisiana to St. Louis, Missouri, to St. Paul, Minnesota all along the Mississippi River. Collecting data for the Mississippi River Plastic Pollution Initiative.

As I thought about the significance of April 2021, I reflected on decade milestones. My husband Matt and I met 20 years ago in 2001 (working together at a landfill) – we went out to dinner together for the first time April 16 (my birthday) of that year. He had a new truck, a black F350 (to pull the camper he was living in at the time) and we still have that 20 year old truck – it is pulling our camper today! Ten years after we met (and had married), in 2011, our youngest son was born, April 10. That same month, I launched Marine Debris Tracker, the app everyone is using to log litter along the entire Mississippi River. So both my son and Debris Tracker are 10 years old now.

The 20 year old truck and our camper in Montgomery, Alabama.

This expedition is not about our milestones though. It is part of the bigger community-based initiative that the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative committed to in 2018. Reducing plastic pollution in the Mississippi River 20% by 2020. With UN Environment North America as their partner, we were happy to join to help create the scientific program, along with National Geographic and their educator network. But I knew that I did not just want this to be a technical experience for us – I wanted us to experience the context and culture of each place and learn the history. And we are doing our best to document it all.

The Bayous of Louisiana… living as close as possible to the water.

I have to say that I am late on making this post. The adjustment to living in the “cramper,” traveling almost daily, conducting field work, seeing other people besides family, having live meetings and giving talks, was an adjustment. But a week into it now, and the first pilot city launch and milestone birthday behind us, we are settling in. I plan to post after each pilot city and I will post again shortly about Baton Rouge.

But first, as we slowly make our way along the River Roads, the Mississippi River Trail, I appreciate the views of the water, the river… It’s so powerful, yet not always revered, nor easy on the people around it, but constantly changing and pushing boundaries. I know that we will learn so much more about this river… and about each other, not just within our family in this small space, but about each other in communities as they come together to make a difference in reducing plastic pollution.

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