by Vicki Richmond
photos by Vicki Richmond, Jen Courtney, Melanie Cheney and Wayne Werkmeister
The Gavin’s Point dam is a strangely pink structure that screams steel and power. On one side is Lewis and Clark Lake, the other frames the beginning of the 811 miles to St. Louis and the Mississippi. It is the last dam to harness the power of the Missouri River and pass it along to the City of Yankton, SD, and other towns hungry for electricity. The dam itself delineates one of the most untouched stretches of the Big Muddy. One side of the river is South Dakota, the other Nebraska.
The “Relief”, as the Yankton locals called us, arrived on a clear Thursday evening, camping in a beautiful hardwood grove overlooking the first mile of the unchannelized Missouri. This campground is maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers and is used for those giving service hours to the Park. Camp was hastily thrown together as we prepared to dine at Murdo’s, a bar and grill on the Nebraska side that sits overlooking the river. We explored the nearest cove on the lake and looked up at the dam from the boatramp.
In the spillway below the dam, huge paddlefish patrol the waters, becoming dolphins in the moonlight. The character of the river is different. This is the river we Missourians have heard fearful stories of. Sandbars and snags show where we see only water. We entered the braided channel carefully, Captains Racin’ Dave and Steve piloting us carefully around trees and in the shallow water.
I can hear the voice of River Relief icon Charlotte Overby in my head “It’s not appropriate to punish ourselves for having fun at work!” And work it would be. Two days of trash hauling.
Our task Friday was a noble one. We put our new, yet unnamed, plate boat 490 and the trusty Saskia in the water and boated down to the Yankton ramp. Docks and tanks had littered a privately owned stretch of the river since the 97 flood. The private landowners, City of Yankton staff and the Yankton Trust Unit of the SD Department of Corrections service workers had spent a week cutting and stacking the metal and Styrofoam to be accessible by our boats. Our job was clear. Get those piles.
It is said that many hands make light work. Waiting crews loaded the metal and styrofoam into from the National Parks Service and Missouri River Relief boats and an incredible seven and a half tons later, our crews headed back upstream for a sandbar lunch. A truly great effort was made simple by the hard work of smart planners who had volunteers, trucks and heavy equipment ready to work.
One trash haul down. One trash hauling day to go.
Saturday our two boats arrived at the Yankton ramp with fourteen hard core River Relief Crew. We arrived to a well-oiled sign-in machine. Paul Hedren who supervises the National Parks Service efforts along the National Recreational River gave a brief talk, the Yankton County Emergency Management staff presented as on-site safety message and Mayor Curt Bernard of Yankton SD thanked volunteers.
Two hundred fifty volunteers were fueled with donuts, outfitted in lifejackets and loaded in to 20 boats. The boats scattered volunteers along 12 miles of the river. Our boats headed to the dam, the farthest site possible.
Steve carefully piloted the Saskia upriver, with a crew of girls from Vermillion High School. Racin Dave, following tradition, kissed the dam with the bow of our boat as we marveled at the structure above us. We donned gloves and headed to the shoreline to pick up the trash accumulated along the rip rapped banks.
After a good cleaning of the rip rap below the dam with the help of the fisherman, who were thrilled with our efforts, our crew began a slow trip back down river, scanning the banks for trash more to our liking- the things that are heavy and bulky. An appliance dump caught Racin Dave’s eye. After a quick survey, we pulled what we could and noted that the site requires some different equipment. Cutting torches will be needed to clear this area of trash. We again boarded the boats.
Sharp eyes quickly spotted a tractor tire. Easy work for our motivated students. The tire was efficiently loaded into the Saskia and tire thrones constructed for comfortable seating. We continued to scan the banks, with the new eyes of the students on the lookout for more trash.
A shout. “Tire on the high bank!” Ben leapt from the boat to scramble up the bank. More experienced trash getters shared knowing looks. One tire sitting like that means only one thing. A tire dump.
Sure enough, Ben glanced from the bank to our boat. “Lots of tires here. Maybe 20, 30, 40…”. We smiled. This is what River Relievers love. Getting a big haul. Doing some real good.
We set ourselves in a line, passing tires hand to hand, loading the boat as the National Parks Service headed across the river in our direction. “The trucks are getting ready to go, you guys are the last in” Tyler called. As he pulled closer and was able to see the contents of our boat his eyes widened. We were simply “full up” with tires and trash. We loaded another 20 tires into his boat and headed slowly back downstream to the ramp, where loaders awaited our booty for the day.
As our two (last in) boats approached the ramp we heard gasps from those on shore. The adrenaline rush of a 50-tire load soon eclipsed the lagging energy of the ramp crew. The Saskia was quickly unloaded as the stories of the day were called out across the ramp. Our fifty tire load was the perfect ending to a perfect clean up.