Google’s Street View camera rigs have been up Mount Everest and to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Just about any part of the world, it seems, can be seen from the perspective of Google’s little yellow Pegman figure, just as though you were there yourself. But one of Earth’s longest rivers has, until now, been an exception.
Jordan Hanssen is changing that — leading a small group of university graduates down the Mississippi river in rowboats for 100 days, equipped with one of the same big, round, multicamera units Google has used to shoot countless locales the world over.
“If you’re an American, you have a connection with the Mississippi river, even if you don’t know it,” says Hanssen.
The Mississippi river runs for over 3,700 kilometres, stretching from nearly the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico. It's part of the fourth longest river system in the world. At its widest point, it reaches 11 miles wide. It's also home to 260 species of fish — 25% of all fish species in North America.
It's woven into the fabric of American culture and history: the writings of Mark Twain, the conquest of the west, the industry it has enabled, and the battles won and lost there. The Mississippi and its tributaries have shaped — and continue to shape — Americans’ relationship with their land. Nowadays, the river provides water to more than 18 million people, transportation for 500 million tonnes of goods, and enables $400 billion (£327 billion) of recreation, industry, and agriculture.
Hanssen has the adventuring experience to pull off the Google Street View project. In 2006, he was one of a team of four to row across the Atlantic Ocean, winning the first North Atlantic Rowing Race in 71 days.
He turned from racing to education, founding, with his co-rowers, OAR Northwest, an outdoor education non-profit based on human-powered water travel. In 2014 he rowed the Mississippi as a scouting expedition for the current trip with students from the University of Puget Sound in the US state of Washington.
The river enables $400 billion (£327 billion) of recreation, industry, and agriculture.
“The river, so much is asked of it: it’s asked to be space for nature, it’s asked to be a space for commerce, it’s asked to be a space for play,” says Hanssen. “Because it is all those things, there’s so many disagreements on how to manage it.”
The US Army Corps of Engineers, for example, maintains a 9-foot deep channel from Minneapolis to New Orleans to transport barges. Meanwhile, conservation groups and the US Environmental Protection Agency work to maintain natural ecosystems and mitigate invasive species like zebra mussels and Asian carp.
The team (at various times three or four interns, plus Hanssen) is on the river right now, rowing custom-built 17-foot fibreglass skiffs that have been modified to carry the Street View photography equipment. Called the Jersey Skiff, the boats are a classic New England style: tapered sterns and thick hulls. They're made to brave the surf and rocky beach landings. They’re great for this trip, says Hanssen, because they track straight and smooth. They’re not nimble, but they keep momentum, can carry weight, and are durable and easy to beach. They’re stable enough to heat leftovers on camp stoves on the deck.
Rowers take shifts, 1.5 hours at a time, in a three-person rotation. The seats slide back and forth like the ones in a rowing scull, so that the crew can use their legs and core in addition to their arms.
The days are long. They have a schedule to keep, stopping at schools along the river for classroom visits, so the days start at dawn. They eat breakfast and lunch on the water, and camp out on the riverbank. They’ve rowed through floods (not as scary as it sounds), and dodged flotillas of barges that can reach more than 1,000 feet long. The level, even the course of the river is constantly changing. Currently, they’re headed toward Helena, Arkansas, continuing the 100-day trip down the river that's nearly 4,000 kilometres long.
At the end of the trip, the team's footage from the camera will add the Mississippi river to the already long list of exotic spots Street View users can browse. In good weather, the team can run the camera for eight hours. In that time, it runs through two brick-sized batteries a day.
The team is also collecting water samples and sending them to labs at the University of Washington and Louisiana State University to support research there.
The results, along with the educational initiatives and public interest in the project, could hold some clues on how to use such an important resource without abusing it. Even the Street View contributes to our understanding of the river, especially in comparison to maps and visual observations.
“There’s so much work that has been done to the river to control it,” says Hanssen. “But the river itself remains this wild area that can’t be controlled. You can coax it, but when it decides it wants to do something, it’s going to do it.”
All images courtesy OAR Northwest.
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