Explorer-academic prepares for Mississippi River adventure

Amit Shah at Macchu Picchu

Amit Shah, a graduate student in mathematics, at Machu Picchu. He will begin his journey kayaking or canoeing down the 2,300-mile Mississippi River in May.

On May 13, Amit Shah and Alexandra Woodford will take off on an ambitious voyage — kayaking or canoeing down the entire 2,300 miles of the Mississippi River, from its headwaters in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico.

The two-and-a-half-month adventure is under the auspices of the British Exploring Society, which specializes in expeditions for 16- to 25-year-olds.

“They’re to get you away from people you know, in remote atmospheres with no public phones or Internet,” said Shah, a graduate student working on a master’s in mathematics.

“You learn something scientific and mature as a person. It gets you out of your comfort zone.”

His partner, Woodford, has done three of the society’s expeditions — a month in Svalbard, Norway, in the Arctic Circle, two weeks in Setesdal Valley, also in Norway, and five weeks in Namibia, in southwest Africa.

“Alex worked last year for the society as an unpaid intern,” he said.

In 2009 Shah went on a motorcycle trip to the Himalayas in northeast India. The two-week adventure “got me out of my shell,” he said. “I was mixing with people much older than me, by at least eight years. It was great to hear other people’s stories.”

Three years ago the couple spent two weeks in Peru, taking in Machu Picchu and other sights.

“We were in the Amazon rain forest for four days, and swam in a river full of piranhas,” he said. “We were staying in a hostel, where we heard someone Skyping home say they had lost a toe to a piranha.”

While working for the British Exploring Society, Woodford took part in a Next Generation Explorer challenge, sponsored by Land Rover, with three other explorers. She won. Her reward was a “mentor weekend” in Gila National Forest, New Mexico, with TV show host Edward Michael “Bear” Grylls.

“She’s the explorer, I’m the academic who’s just tagging along,” said Shah.

He figures the Mississippi adventure will cost about $5,000. He and Woodford are raising money for those costs, plus $7,500 they’d like to give the British Exploring Society.

With their website and blog, they’re pursuing sponsorships from such sources as Captain Fawcett’s Mustache Wax — Shah promises to grow a mustache and goatee. They are soliciting other companies for canoes or kayaks and solar chargers to fuel their cell phone, which they’ll use for mapping and weather.

The couple is also seeking donations online, where Shah pledges to paddle naked for a day. “It’s going to be an interesting day,” he said. “I hope I don’t get arrested.”

The day will be chosen by donors. “It may be while we’re up North, while it’s cooler,” Shah said. “It will be sheer humiliation if we’re going through a populated area. And if it’s in the South, there will be mosquitos.”

Amit Shah

Amit Shah says he’s not an explorer, just an academic who tags along.

He admitted, “This isn’t a good idea by any means.”

Shah will use savings from his UIC job as a teaching assistant. Woodford is putting aside earnings from four part-time jobs she has in Leicestershire, England, where she’s living with her family.

Shah is a native of Essex, England. “I was a chubby child, not very good at sports,” he recalled. “My forte was academics. I grew up wanting to be a lawyer, but I’m doing a math Ph.D. so something went wrong somewhere.”

He earned his bachelor’s degree at Warwick University, where he met Woodford. He’ll receive a master’s in mathematics at UIC this year, then head for the U.K. to pursue a Ph.D. at a school yet to be selected.

His career? “Hopefully research,” Shah said. “I’d love to be a university academic.”

A resident of the Heart of Italy neighborhood around Western and Oakley, he keeps fit by rock climbing — indoors at a climbing gym and outdoors at the Red River Gorge in Kentucky.

“If I could be anything, I would love to be a ski instructor,” Shah said. “I try to go every year if I can, mostly in the Alps, which are closest to the U.K., and in Wisconsin with other grad students from the math department.”

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