Down the Mississippi

The front of Ashley Dechant’s fishing boat she took down the Mississippi River to New Orleans.

UWL junior documents fishing boat journey to New Orleans

Ashley Dechant in St. Louis

UWL Junior Ashley Dechant, an art major and photography minor, took a 74-day trip down the Mississippi River last summer. Here she is arriving at Hoppies Marina in St. Louis on day 24.

UWL junior Ashley Dechant journeyed down the Mississippi River from St. Paul to New Orleans alone in a 12-foot fishing boat last summer.

The art major says she didn’t catch any fish on a 74-day trip, but she did capture the stories of hundreds of people she met along the way.

Dechant, a photography minor, documented the lives of people on the river through hundreds of photos, videos and audio recordings with help from a UWL Undergraduate Research and Creativity grant. She will share her hour-long documentary film from the trip, followed by a discussion, from 5:30-7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 29, in 1400 Centennial Hall. Her presentation is part of UWL’s Creative Imperatives Festival.

Dechant came to UWL after serving in the Air Force for five years stationed in Maryland. A native of Tomah, she wanted to attend school closer to home.

Mississippi River by Ashley Dechant.

Mississippi River by Ashley Dechant.

Once in La Crosse, Dechant, who had never boated or lived on the river, had an urge to understand river life — just down the road from UWL. She decided to not only visit the river, but live on it. She bought a houseboat and nestled up close to some long-term river dwellers. They took her under their wing and she fell in love with the lifestyle.

“There is nothing like it. I thought if this is what the river is like here, I want to see more of it,” she says. “And I was in need of a bigger adventure anyway.”

When Dechant decided that she’d travel the entire length of the Mississippi, many people told her she was “nuts,” but her photography instructor Kate Hawkes saw it as an opportunity for Dechant to use her photography skills and apply for an Undergraduate Research and Creativity Grant.

Dechant earned the grant and set off documenting her journey down the Mississippi through hundreds of photos, videos and audio recordings. The river sounds, images, and stories from people she met along the way bring more awareness to what life on the river is all about.

She battled rainstorms, floods and detours onto diverse waterways. She got her adventure, but she also learned about the quality people that make their lives on the Mississippi.

“It could have been a not so great trip. But every stop I made, I met nothing but amazing people — people who will do anything for you — people who look out for each other and take care of each other,” she says. “The community on the river — there is nothing like it.”

When Dechant arrived in St. Louis, she couldn’t continue south as the river was closed due to flooding. She couldn’t camp either because the sand bars were about 30 feet under water. That’s when she met the owners of Hoppies Marina who took her in for 33 days. They let her pitch her tent on an executive barge at their marina. She ate with them nearly every day and they even took her to see the sights of St. Louis.

Ashley Dechant at Hoppies Marina

UWL Junior Ashley Dechant, pictured center, with the group of people she met at Hoppies Marina who took her in for 33 days.

“We are like family now,” she says. “I’ve been back to visit them probably five times.”

While going alone on the river would seem scary to some, Dechant said it was the best way for her.

“If I would have went with someone else, I wouldn’t have had experiences I did,” she says. “It forced me to go to new places and meet people.”

Dechant plans to hold another documentary screening and discussion for the La Crosse community later in the spring. A specific date and place have yet to be determined.

Watch the documentary trailer

“I didn’t catch a single fish, but I did have one jump in my boat.”

If you go —
: Ashley Dechant
What: Film screening and discussion: One Woman’s Journey Down the Mighty Mississippi
When: 5:30-7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 29
Where: 1400 Centennial Hall