Princeton University junior Jackson Dobies experienced a summer of a lifetime last June after he was awarded a Martin A. Dale '53 Summer Award. Dobies rafted much of the length of the Mississippi River from north to south along with his older brother Justin, modeling the classic stories of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. This video gives a glance at the Dobies' journey.
Dobies, a classics major, was one of 12 sophomores selected to receive the $4,000 stipend to pursue an independent project not connected to academic coursework.
Growing up in Minnesota, Dobies and his family spent a lot of time outdoors and around water.
"We always were very adventurous, and we really liked the idea of Mark Twain stories about Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn," Dobies said. "My brother has always said that he was going to raft the Mississippi."
Dobies never thought that adventure would be a reality until he received an email from the Whitman College office about the Dale award.
"It sounded like they had written it to me to do this trip," Dobies said. "It was like, 'if you are looking for an adventurous thing to do for a summer that could be like artistic in some way and sort of fulfill a lifelong dream, submit a proposal and get funding for it.'"
Dobies jumped into all of the necessary research to submit a proposal for a project of this magnitude. He knew that certain safety and legal precautions had to be met, such as Coast Guard approval, fishing licenses and research on past rafting trips made by others. He also created a list of literary classics — including "This Side of Paradise" by 1917 Princeton alumnus F. Scott Fitzgerald, "All the Pretty Horses" by Cormac McCarthy, "All the King's Men" by Robert Penn Warren, "The Catcher in the Rye" by J.D. Salinger, and Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" — to read along the way.
As soon as the summer started, the Dobies brothers purchased a used pontoon boat and, along with family and friends, reconstructed it for the trip. Justin Dobies, who is currently living in Brooklyn and pursuing an acting career, had just graduated from Yale University.
"It became this community thing where pretty much all of our old family friends, all my high school friends, they all came over to our house every couple days and we would just work on getting the boat ready to go," Jackson Dobies said.
After a test run on a lake, the brothers began their journey down the river at Hidden Falls Park in St. Paul, Minn. One of their first mishaps involved their motor catching on fire six days into the trip. They did some fundraising and received additional University funds to replace the motor and continue their trip.
Along the way, they met many people who were more than willing to help them. Dobies recalled one woman who had a positive impact on their trip — Nadine Leo, a jewelry artist originally from Morocco — who helped them buy groceries and invited them over to dinner while they waited for their new motor in Alma, Wis. Dobies said that Leo felt like a grandmother figure to them and was the "pinnacle of characters" that they met along the river.
The brothers were on the water for 10 to 14 hours a day, during a very hot and dry summer.
"We'd wake up by about five in the morning and then get on the river and just go all day," Dobies said. "We'd take turns driving about every hour. ... If it was mealtime, we would make coffee and breakfast or little cold-cut sandwiches for lunch."
He also learned to play guitar, and he spent many hours reading.
"I read through a lot of great American classics, which was part of the proposal — to be reading this great American literature while having this uniquely American experience," Dobies said.
When the Dobies reached New Orleans, they felt overcome with satisfaction. From their starting point in Minnesota to their destination point at Seabrook Marine in New Orleans, the brothers rafted more than 1,710 of the river's 2,350 miles. The journey took 48 days from start to finish.
"I'm so thankful to go to a place like Princeton that afforded this opportunity to me," Dobies said. "It really was a life-altering experience. It was just something that gives me incredible perspective. That's just amazing that Princeton was able to do that for me. And so I'm so thankful to the University that they do stuff like this for students."