June 5, 2009

Cleaning up the Rec River!

Yankton Missouri River Clean-up
May 9, 2009
Yankton, S.D.
text by Vicki Richmond - photos by Paul Lepisto, Vicki Richmond and Dave Stous

Yankton, South Dakota, is a special place on the Missouri River. Gavin’s Point Dam, the furthest downstream dam on the Missouri is located here, and the river is allowed to roam across its floodplain on and is not locked into a navigation channel.

This 60 - plus mile section, called the National Recreation River, has the sandbars and snags that we on the channelized portion of the Big Muddy have heard stories of. The Big Muddy isn’t quite so muddy here. Because of the sediment-trapping dams, the water flows clearer. Trophy homes and fishing camps line the banks. Having a dependable flow, and no inputs from aggressive tributaries enables people to live harmoniously beside the river.

Despite being the first city on the lower river, Yankton is not immune to the trash that we see concentrated on the banks and in the drift piles further downstream. Stormwater carries trash for miles and empties this floatable trash right into the Missouri. Dumps, long accepted as a way for families to rid themselves of refuse, still persist.

But there is a special connection to the river in this place. People use the river recreationally in large numbers. Folks are connected to the river in a unique way. It is only natural that people want to lend a hand in keeping it clean.

The MRR crew began showing up on Thursday night. An education festival was planned for Friday, bringing nearly 200 students to the river for some hands on learning. We camped near the dam, on a cut-off oxbow of the river. Our small crew of three fell asleep under the tall cottonwoods with an early start in mind.

Friday’s weather looked iffy as we began set-up of the booths that would entertain and educate students. Rain clouds hovered just to the north and east, making us sure to deploy pop up tents, just in case. The students arrived and began touring learning stations. Everything from climate change to fish was featured in the 10 wonderful displays. Provided with an event passport, students eagerly moved from station to station.

The rain came in just before lunch. Exhibitors and students alike gathered under the shelters in Yankton’s Riverside Park, enjoying a delicious meal.

Shortly after the students departed, MRR crew began showing up in earnest. The skies opened up and the threatening rain came down in sheets. We did as much as we could to stage our gear for the move to the island and headed into town in search of a dry place to wait out the rain storm.

By dinnertime, we’d all arrived- Bill and Ruth, with puppy Saffron (her first clean-up!). Lynne and Ty arrived after a brisk game of Frisbee golf in Omaha. Dave, Fran and Rick arrived with the houseboat in tow after an interesting day of dodging cones through the highways in Iowa. Dave R and Dylan pulled in, Dylan splashing his kayak for an early trip to the island on a hunt for treasures. John and Alex had already been to the island, picking a great camping spot overlooking the town and bell tower. After gathering wood from a hospitable Mary Robb with the help of Paul Lepisto, we made our way as a group to the island that would be our home for the weekend.

The wind howled as we set up our camp. Dinner was on, thanks to Michael, and we set up camp while hunting mushrooms to supplement the feast. A windy night turned into a beautiful day as the skies lightened for a day that promised a clean up haul.

Arriving at the ramp at 7:30, MRR crew went to work getting lifejackets ready and helping with sign-in. Vicki provided the group with a safety briefing, followed by talks from the National Park Service and the clean-up organizers. We took our posts: Vicki to lifejackets, John and Dave to their boats. Volunteers were fitted into PFD’s and headed down the ramp to board boats to be shuttled to clean-up sites.

Our boats come in handy at these events. They are large and we aren’t squeamish about putting really ugly trash into them. The Saskia headed to the site of an old dump of cars where we’d worked before while the Char shuttled volunteers. A call came to bring added muscle to a site full of rebar and metal. The Char headed over with tools and crew for the task.

All in all, over 7 tons of debris was removed on this day. 23 tires made their way to the ramp where volunteers ably loaded trash and scrap into trucks bound for the landfill and the metal recycling facility. Over 300 people took part in this one day effort.

Working on the Rec River has its moments of stress. The water is shallow and our captains kept a careful eye on their propellers.

Working on the Rec River has its moments of pure delight. Endangered interior least terns and piping plovers flew over our camp and greeted us constantly. The sand is warm and plentiful. Morel mushrooms were everywhere.

The MRR crew is most appreciative of the invitation to join this incredible effort. We look forward to being on deck again in 2010!

Thanks to the National Park Service and Lewis & Clark Heritage Trail Foundation for their support of our participation in this clean-up!

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