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University of Minnesota

Going with the flow

April 27, 2010

Julia Hill, Kevin Lang, and Andy Cleven stand near the Mississippi River.

University of Minnesota students Julia Hill, Kevin Lang, and Andy Cleven are engaged in a project to visually connect the area between the Mississippi River and the Mill City Museum near St. Anthony Falls.

Photo: Patrick O'Leary

New Gopher Ranger program connects U students with the Mississippi River

By Rick Moore

Thousands of students walk, bike, or bus over it each day while shuttling between the East and West Banks of the Twin Cities campus. For most, however, it’s more or less abstract eye candy a world below.

In reality, the Mississippi River is so much more than that, a fact that University of Minnesota students are now discovering.

The Gopher Ranger program, begun this spring, is an effort to connect undergraduates to educational and experiential opportunities within the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (MNRRA)—the National Park Service entity that includes 72 miles of the river flowing through the heart of the Twin Cities, as well as the Twin Cities campus.

“It’s the least-known park that has one million people using it each year,” jokes Pat Nunnally, coordinator of the River Life Program in the U’s Institute on the Environment.

The Gopher Ranger program is working to change that, he says, by helping students to “take stewardship of the park, learn about the park, and explore the park.”

Taking the river to the mainstream

Nunnally says the idea for a more systematic connection to the river, as opposed to a research project or class here and there, arose spontaneously. It landed a name last fall during Welcome Week, when 120-some freshmen learned about the river during a trip on the Minneapolis Queen.

This spring, students have been attending informational sessions on topics like the history and culture of the MNRRA, as well as the natural history of the park.

The falls of yesteryear

Some 10,000 years ago, St. Anthony Falls—the only falls on the entire Mississippi River—was located at the junction of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers, near Fort Snelling. The falls migrated slowly upstream to its current position in the 1800s. Late in the century, with Minneapolis’s milling operations accelerating the migration of the falls, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed a dike, apron, and dams to preserve the falls’ current location.

Future activities may include habitat restoration, internships with the National Park Service, and assisting youth on canoe trips along the river. That last activity may come as soon as this summer, when the park, in conjunction with the Minneapolis School Board and Wilderness Inquiry, plans to showcase the Mississippi to the middle school cohort of summer school students.

“You don’t put 2,000-plus students on the water with just paid staff,” Nunnally says. “We will undoubtedly have some of our folks volunteering with that program.”

Partnering with the National Park Service

“Gopher Ranger is the first step in a much stronger relationship with the University of Minnesota,” says Paul Labovitz, superintendent of the MNRRA. “Going into the 21st century, there’s a lot we need to learn about managing an urban park sustainably, and the University will be a key partner in that effort.”

Ultimately, as the program grows and expands in scope, it will expose that many more students to the river that’s helped define the area they inhabit.

“I would like for every student at the University to know how they can make the Mississippi River a meaningful part of their experience while they’re here,” Nunnally says. “… The goal, for me, is to have all of us know that we can take advantage of one of the great rivers of the world that’s right here on our doorstep.”


Tags: Institute on Environment

Listen to Pat Nunnally describe the Gopher Ranger program in a University of Minnesota Moment.

For more information on the program, open to any University of Minnesota student, visit Gopher Ranger or email the U’s River Life Program at