Eight days into a 1,200-mile trek along one of the longest rivers in the United States—the iconic Mississippi—Sharon Day was looking to hit mile 125 by day’s end.
“We’re at Brainerd, heading south on [state highway] 371, and hope to get close to Little Falls [Minnesota] by tonight,” Day said by cell phone on the morning of International Women’s Day, March 8. She is traveling with a half dozen other walkers who have joined her from as far as Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, for the Mississippi Water Walk.
“We’ve walked through a snowstorm the other day,” she said, adding that more snow was expected this weekend. Soon, though, she cut the conversation short.
“I need to go now,” Day said politely but firmly. “I have to walk.”
The Mississippi Water Walk began on March 1 at Lake Itasca in north-central Minnesota. The lake was frozen, but Day filled a copper bucket with the chilled water that bubbles over the rocks as the water leaves the lake—the headwaters of the eventually grand Mississippi River. Around her, people gathered for blessing ceremonies, and then Day, her sister Dorene Day and their supporters began the 1,200-mile, two-month-long journey along the length of the Mississippi River. Their mission: to call attention to water quality issues for all of Mother Earth’s waters.
“We’ll follow the Mississippi as closely as we can, and we’ll be walking,” said Sharon Day, who is leading the walk, in an interview before setting out. Sharon plans to travel the complete route, while others may join her periodically. In Iowa, one woman plans to ride alongside on horseback, Day said.
“The whole idea is to raise awareness, aside from the spiritual purpose,” she said.
Day is not unfamiliar with this river route. In 2011 she carried water from the Gulf of Mexico northward along the Mississippi to mingle with waters of the other four directions as part of the final Mother Earth Water Walk, a project started in 2003 by two Anishinaabe grandmothers to walk first around Lake Superior and eventually around all of the Great Lakes. That culminated in 2011 with walks starting from Hudson Bay, the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and the Gulf of Mexico. Those walks, too, of which this year’s walk is an outgrowth, called attention to the needs of water, a living entity that must be cared for as it cares for us, organizers said.
This year again Day is carrying a copper bucket of water drawn from Lake Itasca, the source of the Mississippi, that she will pour out at its mouth some 1,200 miles south.
“This time we’ll take the water from the headwaters, where it is still clean and pure, and all along the way where it enters the Gulf,” she said. There they will mingle the cleaner water with the much-stressed waters at the mouth, bringing it a message, perhaps, of hope for its future and memories of its origins.
Day found in 2011 that carrying the water became one of her most sacred tasks. She had contemplated taking time out from the walk, letting others take portions of it, as she went back and forth to her work as executive director of the Indigenous Peoples Task Force in Minneapolis.
Then Josephine Mandamin, one of the Ojibwe grandmothers who started the Water Walks, told her about the buckets of water each group had carried in 2011.
“We’ve taken this water from its home, and we’ve orphaned it, and it will join the other waters, converse with them, and then make its way back home—who know how long,” Mandamin told her. “And now we have to take care of it.”
Day told ICTMN that she gazed down at the bucket of water in her lap as she and her sister drove around a heavy-construction area near Memphis, and she realized she could not leave it for others to carry.
“You know how you hold a child on your lap, you have certain feeling about it,” she said. “That’s what I experienced with the water … I couldn’t leave that water. I had to see it all the way through.”
And Day did carry it that year, to the Bad River Reservation in Wisconsin, where all the waters were mingled into Lake Superior. This year Sharon and Dorene will walk together on some of the route, though Dorene will need return home home periodically and rejoin the group at different points along the route.
Sharon Day’s last trip taught her that water issues are familiar to people, but conducting this walk and calling more attention to the issues of clean, quality water is a never-ending task.
“I think people are becoming more aware, but there is so much we still have to do,” she said. “Here in Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes, our water, aquifers, are drying up because we are using so much of the water, and it doesn’t get recycled.”
She recalled, too, a grandmother in Wisconsin who handed her a crochet square on her last water walk.
“Every stitch was a prayer, the way every step is a prayer for you,” the grandmother from Black River Falls told her in making the gift and encouraging Day’s journey. “My well water is contaminated.”
Just after the 2011 walk, Day recalled a few uncomfortable incidents along the route, but now, she said, she only remembers the support and the sincere questions she got. On one memorable stop, she and Dorene were eating a sandwich outside a Missouri gas station when a tough looking crew of all-white, all-male construction workers arrived. They asked the women about what they were doing and listened to them explain their intent to call attention to water issues. The men then took up a donation and gave the women $25.
“Walk slow and pray hard,” they told the sisters, “because our water is contaminated.”
Such encounters inspired Day to walk again, to honor and help the water.
“Those are the things,” she said, “that made it worthwhile.”
People can track the Mississippi Water Walk progress on Facebook. The song below is infused with love for the water, the ethereal voice echoing through the ages, the sound of running water its only accompaniment.