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Western Illinois University Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Administration (RPTA) alumni Haley Brasile and Cody Presny. It was clear from their wide smiles and zealous waves from their canoe that the couple was about to encounter people they love waiting for them along the Mighty Mississippi.
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After landing in Moline near the WIU-Quad Cities campus, Haley Brasile hugs a member of her "WIU RPTA family," Maureen Fitzgerald, current RPTA student at Western in Macomb.
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Haley Brasile and Cody Presny being interviewed by University Television producer and current RPTA graduate student Phil Weiss on the WIU-QC campus October 3, 2016.
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Venturing with Purpose: WIU Alumni Take Canoe the Length of the Mississippi for Conservation Awareness and Adventure

October 17, 2016

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MOLINE/MACOMB, IL — It was clear from Haley Brasile's and Cody Presny's wide smiles and zealous waves from their canoe that the couple was about to encounter people they love waiting for them along the Mighty Mississippi. Two weeks ago Monday, when they pulled up to the rocky river bank near the Western Illinois University-Quad Cities campus, the pai —both alumni of the WIU Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Administration (RPTA)—were greeted by Quad Cities' reporters, city leaders, community representatives and a few curious onlookers. But it was members of their WIU family — specifically members of their "WIU RPTA kin" (including students, faculty and staff) —who received the warm hugs, the knowing grins and hearty handshakes. To those of us there to meet the ambitious, yet down-to-earth couple, it was just as clear to us we were witnessing a happy family reunion.

In late August, Brasile, who finished her RPTA degree in December 2015, and Presny, who finished up his degree the May before, embarked upon what they call "Amongst the Current," a canoe trip down the length of the Mississippi. While they both admit the long days of paddling are a part of "another adventure" together, the enterprising pair has a method to his/her madness of navigating the Mississippi River this fall—a time when the swift waterway has been at flood stage in some of the regions through which it runs.

Not only are they meeting and working with members of the Mississippi River network—a group of organizations whose members work together to preserve the Ol' Muddy— along their way, they are raising money to support the Quapaw Canoe Company. Based in Clarksdale (MS), the Quapaw is a small outfit that offers Lower Mississippi paddling experiences to at-risk youth groups, churches, schools, scout troops and anyone who wishes to experience the wondrous beauty of the Mississippi River Valley.

"Last March, a slow moving storm passed over the Quapaw headquarters, dumping more than 17 inches of rain, which flooded the Sunflower River Basin, the area along the river the company's owners call home. The flooding left Quapaw headquarters under water and in need of reconstruction," explained Brasile and Presny when they landed in Moline October 3. "With our Amongst the Current project, we are working in partnership to support this mission-driven business. They are dedicated to exploring and sharing the beauty and wildness of the Lower Mississippi River. They bring the powerful benefits of canoeing and team building to youth at-risk groups from Mississippi, Louisiana and Missouri."

Through their website,, Brasile and Presny are collecting donations for the Quapaw Canoe Company until they reach Clarksdale.

Haley Brasile, from Amongst the Current, is interviewed by member of the Quad Cities media on October 3, 2016.
Western Illinois University Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Administration Haley Brasile, from Amongst the Current, is interviewed by member of the Quad Cities media on October 3, 2016.

An Environmentally Sound Approach

Those who grew up along the "Old Man River" know it can be a fickle friend. Although much of it has breathtaking natural scenery and bountiful wildlife, with its frequent flooding, a large portion of it shaped by manmade wing dams, a sophisticated lock-and-dam system that can churn up dangerous white water and an undertow that has called far too many boaters and fishermen home, the Mississippi River is not for those who have little to no waterway training or skills, particularly in a motorless canoe. But for Brasile and Presny—who both completed the RPTA department's Environmental, Conservation and Outdoor Education Expedition or ECOEE, a semester-long field experience — what would be an impossible trip for many was another quest to get underway as soon as they feasibly could. When they hatched the idea earlier this year, they were both working at a canoe outfitter in Georgia.

"We weren't ready to be settled down yet, and Cody had always wanted to canoe down the Mississippi. He brought it up randomly one time," Brasile said.

"It was a boyhood dream of mine," Presny added.

"So we started watching some documentaries to learn more. It soon became clear to both of us there would be nothing about this trip that would be too hard for us. We have all the background. So then we got really into it," she said.

The couples' background not only includes canoeing skills, but also backcountry skills they developed and honed while enrolled in ECOEE (which they completed during different semesters while at Western).

Started in 1976 by RPTA Professor Emeritus Frank Lupton, ECOEE began as a way to provide students with practical experience in outdoor leadership and education and wilderness travel skills. Since then, hundreds of WIU students have enrolled and completed the semester-long experience, which entails 18 credit hours of coursework, traveling to and camping, as well as working, in locations throughout the United States and even to Canada and Mexico.

Last month, at the third annual Lodge and Libations, an event to raise money for a new outdoor education building at Horn Field Campus (HFC), Lupton, as well as many ECOEE alumni, came out to celebrate their RPTA roots and ECOEE, which is a nationally and internationally touted program in the wilderness education field. In 2015, HFC celebrated 50 years as a part of Western, and the RPTA faculty and staff saw the opportunity as a way to showcase the 92-acre field campus (administered by RPTA) and to raise awareness about the need for a new outdoor building in order to continue to facilitate such outstanding programs as ECOEE. (For more about the history of Horn Field Campus and the proposed Lupton Outdoor Education Building, see

"ECOEE was a big driving force for us," Presny said. "ECOEE teaches students about environmentalism and conservation. During it, we got to meet with all the folks along the way, very similarly to what we're doing out here on the Mississippi River. It gave me a lot of my backcountry skills—the skills we need in the headwaters of the Mississippi," he explained.

"The other side of ECOEE is group development," Brasile noted. "ECOEE changed my life, for sure. Before that, I had never really done outdoor trips. I'd been in the outdoors, but ECOEE gives you the full effect. We wouldn't be able to be on this trip as a couple if we didn't know how each other are as leaders and how to react to one another…"

"To take care of conflict and all of that," Presny added.

A Family Foundation

WIU RPTA Professor Rob Porter, who manages the WIU-QC RPTA Program and who taught both Brasile and Presny in multiple classes in Macomb, said the entire RPTA program at Western helped prepare them for this mission-based adventure.

"First, I think Western's RPTA program reinforced their appreciation and excitement for the outdoors. Secondly, I think most of the RPTA faculty members emphasize service to others, community and the environment in our classes, so I hope that maybe we were role models," he noted. "Their classes also prepared them by teaching them how to plan and carry out expeditions and provided them with a solid understanding of agencies and how they collaborate to protect natural resources like the Mississippi River watershed," Porter added.

"One thing I have noticed on this trip is that we're both really good with finding contacts and calling them," Brasile noted. "In the RPTA department, all the teachers talk, and all the teachers are involved not just in their various emphases necessarily. For example, at Horn Field, you'll have all the RPTA staff using it for their classes in some way. Everyone is connected—it's like a family, and like in all families, everybody talks, so you get this intermingle of different emphases, but all in one department. I think that provided us with the tools to connect with people who might give you different information or a varying perspective."

"When I think of the RPTA department, I think of the 'Cheers' theme song. Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows you're name. It was such a rich environment to learn and study in," Presny added.

WIU alumni Cody Presny and Haley Brasile

A Vantastic Experience

Although Brasile and Presny were in the same "Introduction to RPTA" class a few years ago, it wasn't until late in their individual WIU careers they actually met and became a couple. RPTA Chair Dan Yoder taught that first class they took together.

"I had no idea at the time they would, together, do something so bold and wonderful as this," he noted. "However, as I saw them each mature and proceed through the RPTA program, I had a sense they each might do something special."

While students in the program, Brasile and Presny officially met one another while working and volunteering at Horn Field Campus. But their mutual experience at HFC wasn't the catalyst for their relationship—it was an old Chevy van that brought them together.

"I would say Horn Field Campus is where our relationship bloomed. But to be honest, he had this 1979 Chevy conversion van that he drove around campus," Brasile explained.

"So one time, she came up to me and said she liked it. That's how this all started," he added.

"It had Shag carpet inside of it," Brasile noted.

Like ECOEE and their RPTA classes, their individual experiences at Horn Field Campus were formative for each of them. HFC Program Manager Mindy Pheiffer got to know Brasile and Presny when both showed up there as part of their studies in the RPTA program.

"They both took the Wilderness First Responder certification courses we offer to students and the public at HFC during spring break every year. Like for their ECOEE programs, they were enrolled in the WFR courses at different times," Pheiffer noted. "I met them each as they prepared for their ECOEE experiences, which the students do at Horn Field Campus. Every year, the ECOEE group comes through Horn, and every year it's a time for me to get to know another set of students with highly diverse backgrounds and reasons for pursuing this endeavor. It takes a special commitment to participate in ECOEE, and I am privileged to watch them from the beginning—as they are filled with anticipation—to the end of the trip, when they return again to Horn and present the semester-long experience to their friends and family at the annual ECOEE banquet. They each return as different people, and watching them re-integrate to campus life is quite a transition for them," she added.

According to Pheiffer, for Presny, when he returned from ECOEE, he took on a strong leadership role in the student organization H.E.L.P, which stands for "Horn Environmental Learning Project." Pheiffer serves as the H.E.L.P. advisor at Western. The group is comprised of students (graduate and undergraduate) interested in helping with projects at Horn Field Campus and other environmental projects around campus and the community.

"He became president, and his passion and enthusiasm for outdoor leadership were as evident then as they are now as he takes on the Mississippi with Haley," Pheiffer added.

Brasile was involved with H.E.L.P., too, while at Western, and she noted it also had a profound effect on her.

"I think H.E.L.P started a lot of our volunteering passion," Brasile said. "I didn't really know that it was a passion of mine. Now, if I could volunteer for the rest of my life, I would. And that definitely started with H.E.L.P."

Brasile and Presny anticipate completing their Amongst the Current project in late November or early December. Presny said while they initially planned for an approximately 100-day journey, they are taking their time winding down the waterway of the Midwest, embracing the journey.

"We're finding that we're slow pokes on the river. We really like breathing it in and taking our time and enjoying the sites and sounds and visiting the places we're passing. Every day we have experienced something new. We started out in just a field of rice in Minnesota, where there was no channel. We were actually pushing our way through rice fields to hopefully find a channel. At one point, we ran up to a bridge deck to check a sign to make sure we were still on the Mississippi River," he said, as turned to looked at his paddling partner.

"We had no idea where we were," Brasile added, with a smile.

"As we have gone along, the river just gets wider and wider. Eventually, we're going to get to point where it's four miles wide," Presny said. "Every single day during this experience something new has struck me as beautiful and unique on this river."

Follow Brasile's and Presny's Amongst the Current on their website and blog at

Haley Brasile and Cody Presny (Amongst the Current) greet Moline, IL, mayor after landing in Moline near the Western Illinois University-Quad Cities campus.
Cody Presny and Haley Brasile greet Quad Cities area dignitaries after landing in Moline, IL, near the Western Illinois University-Quad Cities campus on October 3.

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