Alyssum Pohl paddling in the Mississippi River with St. Louis Arch in the background (Leanne Davis)
The St. Louis Gateway Arch is among the iconic monuments that Alyssum Pohl saw on her solo trip down the Mississippi River. (Leanne Davis)

Many people try kayaking for the first time to seek adventure, exercise and nature.

Novice Alyssum Pohl, 35, got all three when she paddled solo down the entire Mississippi River, but uppermost in her mind was … plastic. She wanted to find out just how much plastic, including tiny plastic particles called microbeads, she would find in the fourth-largest river in the world.

“People, even if they are aware of plastic as a litter problem, are often unaware of how plastic becomes an issue downstream and in the oceans, how it ends up in the guts of fish and birds,” Pohl said.

When these fish end up on dinner plates, people eat the plastic too.

The four-month journey would take the Kentucky native, biologist and first-time kayaker farther than the distance from Paris to Damascus.

Kayaker Alyssum Pohl showing children water samples on the banks of the Mississippi (Leanne Davis)
Students in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, get an unexpected lesson in water quality from Pohl. (Leanne Davis)

Pohl started in late June 2015 in Minnesota, where the Mississippi River begins, and ended 3,700 kilometers later in early November in the Gulf of Mexico, about 160 kilometers downstream from New Orleans. Every 8 to 16 kilometers on the river, she would use an instrument called a “sonde” to measure temperature and oxygen levels, key indicators of whether organisms can survive in the water.

Then every 160 kilometers or so, she would collect 1 liter of water, which would later be mailed to a lab associated with the Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, a group that helps volunteers conduct research. Scientists there analyzed the water for chunks of plastic, microfibers and microbeads, the tiny plastic particles found in facial scrubs and toothpastes.

Microbeads will be banned in common cosmetic products in the U.S. under legislation the U.S. Congress passed and President Obama signed in December. The law goes into effect in mid-2017.

Pohl is still analyzing the data she collected from her trip, but expects to find some troubling results. She cited problems in the Gulf of Mexico, where scientists have already found a “dead zone” — an area of low to no oxygen that can kill fish and marine life. In 2015, the dead zone was nearly 17,000 square kilometers.

Woman in kayak wearing rain gear and frowning (Courtesy of Alyssum Pohl)
Pohl says she has an “explorer’s mindset and spirit” and feels at home in the wilderness, even in the rain. (Courtesy of Alyssum Pohl)

Pohl wants to underscore in people’s minds the connection between the water they see in U.S. lakes and rivers in the middle of the United States and the water in oceans that lie far away.

“A tiny little creek goes into a small river that goes into a bigger river, eventually into the Mississippi and into the Gulf of Mexico and then the ocean,” she said. “Everything is connected.”

The connection matters because by 2025, experts predict there could be 1 ton of plastic in the ocean for every 3 tons of fish.

Kayaker Alyssum Pohl smiling in front of camping area (Courtesy of Alyssum Pohl)
Wherever Pohl camped for the evening, she would clean up in the morning before shoving off. (Courtesy of Alyssum Pohl)

Join Pohl in playing a role in protecting the world’s water supply. Which of these 10 things can you can do for Earth Day on April 22?

  1. Organize a neighborhood river or stream trash cleanup.
  2. Use household care products made from biodegradable substances.
  3. Download the “Beat the Microbead” app, available in 13 languages, to ensure your products don’t have microbeads.
  4. Use household water filters and test your water with lead-detection kits.
  5. Turn off the faucet while you brush your teeth.
  6. Use reusable bottles for water and other liquids.
  7. Skip using plastic straws, since they often end up in rivers and oceans.
  8. Carry your own reusable bag rather than taking plastic ones.
  9. Shut off the lights (almost all forms of electricity generation require enormous amounts of water).
  10. Pick up after your pets. In stormy weather, the E. coli from dog waste runs into local streams, making other wildlife sick.