Gathering Waters

To steward the Mississippi River, Jaime Thibodeaux brings together a community.

The Mississippi River threads through Jaime Thibodeaux’s life much as it does through the American Midwest. Thibodeaux was born by one of the river’s deep bends, down past Baton Rouge, Louisiana. And today, as president of the Mississippi Headwaters Audubon Society—and a hydrologist for Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources—she spends much of her time thinking about the river and the ecosystem close to its source, in northern Minnesota. “The river up here is gorgeous,” Thibodeaux says. “It’s not huge and intimidating like it is down in Louisiana.” But, she admits, the river also serves very different roles at each end. In the far north it’s a source of drinking water and recreation. Down south it’s a critical highway for commerce.

When Thibodeaux, 33, moved to Bemidji, Minnesota, in 2010, she joined the local Audubon chapter because of its conservation work. She became chapter president in 2011, and since then she has focused on getting as many of her peers—friends, neighbors, even teammates from her ice hockey squad—as possible to volunteer, enticing them with opportunities to write for the chapter newsletter or canoe on the local lake and look for birds and other wildlife. It’s a community that has strong ties to the river, Thibodeaux explains. “They realize that so much impacts the health of the river,” from agricultural runoff that feeds the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone to overusing water, she says. “They are aware that the steps they take up here will affect the lives of others downstream.”

The main focus of the chapter’s work is managing and maintaining the 466-acre Neilson Spearhead Center, a tract of upland forest surrounding Lake Spearhead that’s home to a wide range of wildlife, including loons, eagles, and various warblers. To Thibodeaux, the center is important for its other initiatives, too: the field research programs and the summer camps that target elementary and high school students, many of them at-risk. “Jaime has this incredible enthusiasm,” says George-Ann Maxson, a longtime Mississippi Headwaters Audubon Society board member who helps organize the camps. “She comes from a Louisiana culture—very social and outgoing. And it’s very effective at bringing a new generation to Audubon.”