His mission was simple "to galvanize Minnesotans to take pride and ownership of the freshwater ecosystems that make our state unique." but nothing about the choices Jay Gustafson would need to make would be. Working as an IT Business Analyst for 10 years, Jay enjoyed his work and had a solid career but was searching for perspective. His employer, Collegis Education, supportively granted him a 100-day leave of absence in the summer of 2016 to paddle the Mississippi from Itasca to the Gulf. "I think from almost the moment I arrived back home to Minnesota after paddling the Mississippi, I realized that something was different" said Gustafson. The pace of life off the river was changed for Jay and those 100 days made the difference crisp. "Two things happened in short succession upon my return home. I learned of Governor Dayton's Year of Water Action and I began teaching a course at my church called, Life Keys". These were key factors for Jay that ignited the next phase of his journey in life and in the water.
The "Year of Water Action" called to all Minnesotans, in every industry, to focus on their interactions with the water flowing in Minnesota. "How could the land of 10,000 lakes, home to countless rivers and streams, and the Boundary Waters, be in such a massive state of disrepair when it came to the resource we most identify ourselves with?" Jay lamented. The issues named were many, polluted or impaired water, invasive aquatic species and decaying infrastructure."I was shocked. How could this be true?"He wondered. The church course Gustafson was also teaching was designed to help participants help recognize clearly their values and passions, overall decision making processes, in the hopes of useful life application. "To help you find places where you might serve with a passion or to help you become a better parent, spouse, employee, etc. As I found myself challenging others to discover their passion and pursue it, I became convicted that perhaps I was not doing that myself. I knew in my heart that my passion was on the river" said Gustafson.
Months of restlessness passed for Jay thinking about these calls to passion. He continued learning about the state water crisis and he began imagining a path, one where he left his job and paddled for awareness. Questioning his future with the tools of his faith and seeking guidance from a Mentor, Jay resigned his position and "Paddle for Progress" was born.†
In the summer of 2017 he started his journey, navigating Minnesotaís 34 state water trails, paddling roughly 4,500 miles, to raise awareness of the threats facing the health of the stateís freshwater ecosystems. Jay urges on his site, "the rivers and lakes aren't political and neither should we be. Approximately 40% of the stateís freshwater now considered polluted, we can no longer rely on others to solve this problem".
To accomplish this mission, Jay needed partners and support. His close friends, Dave and Cassie Medema, the minds behind, "The New Over", in Sioux Falls, helped develop a legitimate course of action, a mission and the thirty four river way spanning plan. The duo still manages Jays website and provides administrative support to date. Northstar Canoes and Granite Gear were also early supporters of the project and gave Jay the boost he needed to get off the ground...and into the water."I am now lucky enough to boast 13 partner organizations with Paddle for Progress. It is incredibly difficult to quantify the "biggest supporters" as each partner brings something unique to the project through their work" said Jay. Not overlooking the support that started at home, Jay is humbled and grateful for a "wonderful family and friends, without whom this project would be entirely impossible. Between lodging, logistics, financial donations, and more love and encouragement than you can imagine", their support has fed his momentum and his mouth, if you check with Mark and Sarah Gustafson or Ted and Elle Johnson who have loving lodged Jay off river during this journey.
Now 1 year later, Gustafson is making waves in all the best ways. Most in the paddling and water quality communities have come to know him as "WaterWayJay". He paddles some of the roughest state waterways to report issues back to the organizations, such as the Department of Natural Resources, that can take action. He has seen some exciting and saddening elements on the river, from riverside mooners and Pirate ships to Vehicles and Trash, so much trash. While paddling the Chippewa with Jay outside of Montevideo, this writer took notice of the care in which He watched the banks, the wild life, taking video and making notations of issues to report in. He was the picture of stewardship.
Having travelled more waterways in the state possibly than any one individual, what of our region stood out to Jay in the mounting blur of minnesota rivers when asked? "One of my fondest memories of SW Minnesota was on the Redwood River last October. It started really early in the morning, just as the sun was coming up. It was cold, maybe just above freezing, and as the sun hit the water, it was steaming like a hot tub. Between the fall colors, the sunrise, and all the steam coming off the water, it was absolutely beautiful."†
"The goal through this project is to raise the profile of our water quality crisis and be an advocate for our rivers. I want to close the gap that exists between people's understanding of what is happening with our water and what the current state really is." said Gustafson.
The gap may be closing sooner than later on that perspective here in Granite Falls with a "Riverside Cleanup" happening in the community on Saturday August 11th starting at 11:30 a.m. Hosted by the Yes! House and facilitated by community member Nicole Zempel, citizens will have access to trash collection tools and neighborly support, working together to clean from below the Dam to the K.K. Berge building. There will be an ecofriendly rock art activity to help leave the area more vibrant than it was found.
If you want to hear more about WaterWayJays diligent work covering the Minnesota rivers, visit https://waterwayjay.com/ where there is a host of articles, video and links Jay has curated of his journey.