St. Charles Missouri River Clean-up
Bishop's Landing at the Lewis & Clark BoatHouse
Sept. 10-12, 2010
Sept. 10-12, 2010
text by Steve Schnarr, photos by Alicia Pigg, Tom Ball, Vicki Richmond, Penningtons, others?
for more on this event, see our event page:
for more on this event, see our event page:
As we were preparing for dinner on the banks of the Missouri River in St. Charles, a lone kayaker pulled his boat up the abandoned boat ramp by Lewis and Clark BoatHouse and started unloading gear.
It turns out, this was Tom (never caught his last name) who had started paddling at Three Forks, Montana, where the Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin Rivers join to form the Missouri. He had started in May.
We invited him to dinner and to camp with us, under the shadow of the BoatHouse. The idea of a cold beer seemed like a really good one to Tom. He politely took a barrage of questions from our crew, laughed and shared stories.
And he had a funny observation. “As I was paddling downstream, all of a sudden I saw these blue bags laying on shore. At first I was kind of pissed and thought about pulling over and picking them up,” he said. “After seeing several, I started to realize this was probably part of the clean-up”.
Tom had heard about the clean-up from “Big Muddy” Mike Clark, our friend and fellow river cleaner who has introduced many hundreds of people to the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers through his Big Muddy Adventures guide service. Tom had called Mike for advice, and he suggested that if he was coming through St. Charles on Sept. 10 or 11, he ought to find the River Relief crew if he wanted to sit around a campfire with some fellow river rats and swap stories.
Those blue bags are our “trash flags”. The day before a clean-up, an early crew heads to our campspot, sets up our “Flying Nun” kitchen tent, and sends out a couple of boats with trash bags, maps and a dispatcher. The crew’s job is to find the places where we can safely drop off volunteer crews the next day. To make it easy for the clean-up boat drivers to see those spots, we flag them with a big, blue Stream Team trash bag with a rock in it tossed on shore.
The dispatcher marks all these spots on a map with descriptions of how many people the spot can take, any special notes on finding the trash and what tools the crews will probably need. She divies the river reaches up into sections that can take several boatloads of volunteers and makes an individual map for each boat driver on the clean-up. This is a simple way to communicate to the boat drivers where to take volunteers. Ideally we cover 10 miles of river at a big clean-up – five miles up, five miles down.
Even though he was exhausted from his months of river travel, Tom fit right in with the crew the next day. The only way things work at an event like this is if the volunteer crew is proactive in seeing what needs to be done and getting it done. Tom was right there, hopping in wherever the action was. An instant crewmember.
This brings me to our crew. Missouri River Relief has a staff of three full-timers and two part-timers. Everyone else is a volunteer. Essentially what staff does is to organize a framework where our volunteer crew can step out of their busy lives and have a fun and productive weekend by making these events happen.
Without this base of unreasonably dedicated volunteers, nothing would get done. They give many, many weekends – and often Thursdays and Fridays – plus countless evenings and free time, to keep the machine rolling. They operate our boats, keep them maintained and working, and train new operators on safe and efficient river piloting. They plan camp menus and prepare amazing food for the crew. They offer ideas on improving our systems and then implement them. The degree of passion and care they give to even the smallest details is kind of stunning. Our biggest fear is burnout, so we try to keep things interesting and fun, and to always bring new people into the crew so the burden doesn’t fall on too few old-timers. It’s a tough balance, but so far it’s worked.
I have no idea how this thing keeps working – it seems like magic. What makes it tough to define is that the magic is held within many different, very special people. But it seems that the glue holding it together is a love for the river, a willingness to work hard and selflessly, and a love for each other.
People certainly ask me, “How do I get one of those crew shirts?” The only way I know to answer is to describe what River Relief crew does – travel all over the watershed doing the behind the scenes work that makes an event run smooth. Then I say, “It’s pretty much a personal decision. You decide that at this time in your life, you want to be part of the River Relief crew. And you email me and get on the crew list and when you can help, you come help.”
In St. Charles, and also the bigger Confluence area, we’ve been doing clean-ups since 2002. There’s a tribe of folks that always shows up for clean-ups in the area, and they form the base of our St. Lou crew. I don’t really know if these folks met through our events, around our campfires, or if they knew each other before because of their river-obsessed ways.
There’s Jim Denner, the anatomy teacher from Lindbergh High School. Every time we’re anywhere close, he brings 35 to 50 students – most of which have never been on the Missouri River before. This year there were two events close to St. Louis – in Washington in April and St. Charles this Sept. He brought kids to both. In Washington, the kids were in a hurry to get out of there after a morning of hard work, because that was their Prom Day…!
Tom Ball – a lifelong river educator and stream defender. He shows up when he can and leaves when he has to. From safety talk to tire wrangling to renditions of Neil Young around the campfire, it would be a sad clean-up if Tom didn’t show up. This time, he took the Fort Zumwalt Trashinators out on the river and showed 'em how it's done. That's him in the front there with the orange Americorps lifejacket.
Mighty 211 – this crew is Stream Team #211 from the Meremec River at Arnold. In St. Charles this year, Bernie Arnold and Laurie Fauretti both came to help. Bernie brought his tire trailer, worked the lifejacket pile then hopped on the river to haul in garbage. After working registration into shape, Laurie got lunch going then did the afternoon trash haul. At 211 clean-ups she usually helps organize the lunches and was glad for the chance to leave the food scene and hit the river. Boy do I know that feeling… going to someone else’s event and getting to do the actual work.
Craig Holt – Craig started showing up to River Relief clean-ups about five years ago. He’d usually come a day early, get his own camp set up, then be there to help every step of the way. I remember last time we had a big event at Columbia Bottoms and he showed up with a pot of stew when we arrived with no dinner plans. This time, Craig couldn’t get there ‘til Saturday morning. We actually had a ceremony to conjure up Craig the night before.
Craig on the left and Rod on the right load up Greg Dennigmann's bucket with river trash.
photo by Alicia Pigg.
photo by Alicia Pigg.
Big Muddy Adventures – these guys are our true partners in the Confluence area. They are their own river clean-up crew, by canoe only. Mike Clark and Betsy Tribble show up with their Clipper Canoe (seats 12) and hit the river with big smiles whether they have a crew or not. Then proceed to fill that boat with trash on their way downstream. Betsy and Mike also take a group of students called the River Kids out in canoes once a month to clean up and experience the two mightiest rivers in the country: the Missouri and Mississippi.
Francis Baum – this guy started his own environmental organization of fellow Boeing workers. BEEP – Boeing Employees for Environemental Protection. He travels across the state to help with River Relief events, and this time he took on the dispatch position – scouting the trash on Friday then sending folks out there to pick it up on Saturday morning. He was a little bummed this year that “Talk Like a Pirate Day” landed on the day after the clean-up….
Many other friends and familiar faces joined us on the riverfront that day. Along with over 250 other state-wide volunteers picking up trash, sorting out recyclables, piloting (and fixing) boats, teaching and learning, serving and being served, this group of local folks made this event happen.
Although everyone felt tired at the end of the day, no one felt broken. In fact, after a dinner graciously donated by Trailhead Brewing across the street and gathered around a campfire sharing stories, we all felt a little healed. I’m pretty sure we healed each other, and the river healed us all.