May 25, 2007

Yankton, S.D. Clean-up - May 19, 2007

Kissing the Dam
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.

May 13, 2007

May 13 - Rolling with the flooded river

A Surprising yet relaxing spring weekend in the Heartland
by Melanie Cheney
photos by Melanie Cheney

Well, this weekend we were supposed to be helping 300 volunteers clean-up on the banks of the Missouri River near St. Charles, MO. However, that river had plans of her own, and she sent us packing for home.

After spending the first night on Pelican Island checking the boats every hour because the water was receding down the sandbar at a rate of a foot every hour, we found out she was going into major flood stage back at home in CoMo and soon to follow in St. Charles. After our Birds, Bugs and Botany field trip on Monday, we proceeded to pack up that evening and leave at dawn the following day.

It took us half the day to load up and drive back to Columbia only to unload and try to help the local communities with our baots and vans. We took off to Rocheport where they had set up a major sandbagging operation. WE had fun, although I was sick from exhaustion by the time I finally made it home.

What I really want to write about is what an amazing weekend we just had because of our beloved raging river. First of all, she didn't crest as high as expected...saving our river clubhouse (Club Medfly) and our hangout at Cooper's Landing. Secondly, I got to relax all weekend with no obligations. We were free to visit with good friends, eat good food and play in the beautiful spring outdoors.

My new love and I got to camp out underneath the cool starlit sky for two nights, sleeping in new places, walking in new woods, checking out the woodland ferns and wildflowers, stopping at the "Moon Rocks" in the creek, going for a morning swim amonst the clear trickling waterfalls.

We then went for a jaunt over to Strawberry Hill nursery, where my sweetie took me plant shopping and then home to beautify the gardens. We soaked up some sunshine while planting mint, cleomes and impatients, taking shady hammock breaks before finishing up to pack a cooler and head down to the Big Muddy once again.

Anthony (Boudreaux) met us on the flooded River Road with a canoe and guided us through the flooded bottomlands and creeks to Coop's. To our surprise, music was playing and people were hanging out, wading around in their mud boots, relaxing on docks tied up in the flooded parking lot.

Dinner had just been cooked and we enjoyed the beautiful warm sunset amongst great company. Naked Dave and Dyno were perched in the bow of Barb and Roger's houseboat (sitting on it's trailer with water all around) and they serenaded us with outrageous acoustic jams. Soon, the barred owls started their wild hooting and proceeded to make "owl love" all night long. It was amazing. By then, Anthony had rigged his canoe with a tiki torch and took us on an evening canoe ride in the backwaters. Only the sounds of owls, frogs and the occasional dip of the paddle filled the otherwise silent night.

We paddled back to our clubhouse for the night, making a bed on the back deck, right over the surging waters of the flooded river. Somehow, we managed to sleep dry and peacefully. What an amazing and ambitious adventure, yet such a relaxing and wonderful weekend.

My love and respect for the river has continued to grow, along with my great gratitude for all she gives.

May 7, 2007

Bird, Bugs and Botany – May 7, 2007

A naturalist’s foray on Pelican Island Natural Area
by Steve Schnarr

After a successful Learning Festival and clean-up, we were excited to try something new during River Camp. Tim Nigh envisioned a day where naturalists from different disciplines would tromp together through the woods and sandbars of Pelican Island Natural Area to learn from each other about the web of life there.

Members of a Webster Groves botanical organization, who have been meeting every Monday for decades for botanizing field trips, came early to walk the beautiful Sioux Passage trail alongside the “Car of Commerce” Chute which forms Pelican Island. (The chute was apparently named for a riverboat that sunk there back in the day.)

Shortly after noon, other area naturalists, including members of the Confluence Chapter of Missouri Master Naturalists, members of Audubon Missouri and other assorted nature freaks converged on the Sioux Passage Boat Ramp, curious about what this odd day would bring.

We suited everyone up in lifejackets and split folks into three groups, trying to keep an even balance of birders, botanists and entomologizers. Tim Nigh and John Brady took a boatload up to the head of Pelican Island, where Anthony was preparing our camp for an premature tear-down due to the impending flood. They scoured the sandbars and adjacent bottomland forest, checking out the unique sandbar species as well as the proliferation of exotics within the forest.

The two other groups headed to opposite sides of the island, one group on the Missouri River side and the other on the chute side. From there they explored old channel sloughs, towering cottonwood forests and abandoned fields.

From a botanical perspective, things looked pretty grim. Although the forest was dominated by a native canopy of elm, cottonwood, several species of maple, hackberry and mulberry, the forest floor is dominated by exotics. Japanese hops, bush honeysuckle, lambs-quarters and more provide the bulk. And, of course, more nettles than you’d ever want to meet in a dark room.

The highlight was the migrating warbler population. The birders in the mix were dumbfounded by the amount of warbler activity that late in the day (we were in the woods from 1:30 to 4:00 p.m.). Magnolia warblers, blackburnian warblers, bay breasted warblers and more were darting among the viny canopy, appearing to feed even that late in the day.

As the boats headed back to the ramp, my boat went downstream to pick up a few “artificial substrate” baskets (essentially metal cages filled with rocks) that we had places two weeks earlier for a water quality monitoring workshop scheduled later in the week (cancelled due to the flood). To our amazement, they were still there, and Mike Leahy (Natural Areas Coordinator for MDC) hauled them in. We spread the rocks out in a plastic swimming pool at the boat ramp and checked out the life within. Everyone was amazed that the Missouri River, long believed to be devoid of life, a veritable toxic waste dump of the Midwest, could harbor such a mix of quality macro-invertebrates. From caddis-fly larvae to dragonfly nymphs and mayfly larvae, there was a lot going on in one of those samples.

Following the event, we had an hour for all of us nature freaks to discuss what we saw on the island and give our own educated guesses on what patterns we could see. For our first naturalist foray, we packed up feeling like a success! And we met some wonderful St. Louis area nature freaks just like us.

May 5, 2007

Stream Team Clean-up - May 5, 2007

Sioux Passage Park, Florissant, MO

by Vicki Richmond and Steve Schnarr
photos by Vicki Richmond, Jen Courtney and Melanie Cheney
Saturday morning dawned drippy. Grass still wet from Friday's deluge made footwear decisions easy- a mud boot day for sure! After a crew meeting held over steaming fresh country eggs, the River Relief crew launched boats, set up the sign-in table and got supplies ready for action.

This clean up was a diversion from the usual River Relief uber-event. Designed for the Stream Team participants in the area, this clean up was as much about connecting people doing the tireless job of river keeping as it was about the trash. Smaller numbers of participants gave us opportunities to exchange savvy, stories and contact information, all while picking up trash.

Volunteers from Stream Teams #516, 1573, 211, and #1 (yes, Mark Van Patten, who started the first Stream Team, came too!) as well as the Parkway North Stream Team and the St. Louis Americorps ERT loaded in to boats and headed just a couple miles down stream to a large dump located on the MegaScout project last fall. A cast iron tub proved no match for these stalwarts. Motorcycles and bedsprings were loaded like cordwood into our plate boat, Saskia, and returned to the Sioux Passage ramp.

MDC fisheries biologist Danny Brown took out a crew of Stream Teamers from Parkway North High School for a “fishing” expedition, picking trash right out of the river from drift racks pushed aside by the rising water.

After lunch, crews boated to a spot upstream of the previous dump and soon found an abandoned boat up in the weeds. This is where the expertise of our crew of diehard Stream Teamers got really impressive. They popped the top half of the boat off, pulling the massive piece of fiberglass down the slope with a rope tied to the Saskia. Soon after, the hull came sliding down the bank as well. With a few careful maneuvers and tie-downs, they whole mass went boating back down to the ramp to be unloaded by the Sioux Passage front-end loader and deposited in the dumpster.

As tired crews returned to camp, MRR Quartermaster John Brady and a revolving crew of cooks served up a feast of delicious chicken roasted for hours on an open fire as stories of the day were recounted. An evening program hosted by author and MRR coordinator Jeff Barrow accompanied the riverside dinner. Stream Team members had the opportunity to present their activities to the group.

This networking opportunity is invaluable for planning, learning and cooperation across the watershed. Of course experiencing a river sunset, a sandbar campfire and a well-prepared dinner helps to build the next generation of river stewards as well.

Here's a partial tally of trash for the day:

23 large Stream Team bags of trash
8 tires
1 Several steel posts
1 TV stand
27 steel rods
1 air conditioner
1 motorcycle (Illinois license 554 421, Dec. 1984)
1 piece chrome trim
1 leaky washtub
one large water softener unit and tank

1/2 toilet tank
1 16 foot bass boat
1 metal roof truss
1 box spring
1 Nimrod popup camper (w/little red light)
partial furnace
5 fan blades
1 lawnmower
2 propane tanks
4 BIG metal rods
1 stainless steel restaurant deep fryer
15 feet of hardware cloth
1 mower deck
12 sheets of metal
3 t-posts
about 3/4 of a stove
1 torque converter for an automatic transmission
1 cast iron tub
2 bundles of wire
10 circus tent pegs
1 volleyball net and pole
1 fragmented toilet
2 wheels
several pieces of carpet
1 sewer pipe
1 portapotty wall
1 office chair pedestal
1 flame spreader
1 piece of chrome trim
1 TV antenna
1 tire rim
1 CB radio
1 55 gallon metal drum
1 muck bucket
1 water tank
1 spool
cluster of spaghetti wire
1 toilet lid
many, many balls of every kind!!!

this sunset was captured during the after rain river mist on Friday, May 4, by Vicki Richmond

May 4, 2007

Sioux Passage Learning Festival - May 4, 2007

Water Education in the Rain
by Vicki Richmond and Steve Schnarr

With a resounding splash, 274 middle school students from the Hazelwood School District headed down to the Big Muddy for a day of serious water education at Sioux Passage Park.

Protected from the drenching rain with trash bag ponchos, the students toured 16 learning stations with an emphasis on water. These education booths were staffed by stalwart agency, corporate, and nonprofit presenters who endured a 1 ½ inch rain.

A strange sea of umbrellas stood inside a 24 foot trash hauling boat and beside the double 225 HP engines of the Missouri Water Patrol boat. Educators from Missouri American Water demonstrated how turbid water from the "Big Muddy" gets tranformed into drinking water. Americorps volunteers showed off a collection of macroinvertebrates while Mark Van Patten showed how he ties masterful fishing flies. AEP River Operations brought a display on the economical uses of barges on our big rivers. Not deterred by a rainy day, Troy Gordon of the Friends of the big Muddy (with his two daughters patiently huddled under his pop-up tent) amazed kids and chaperones with an enormous snapping turtle, found in the same habitat that rings the park.

A planned picnic lunch became lunch on the bus and/or huddled under tents as the rain slowly tapered off. We couldn't help but be impressed by the toughness of the kids, teachers and presenters that stayed during the whole soggy event.

Special Thanks to event Coordinator Lynne Hooper, for pulling this together on a day with a myriad of conflicts, and to Hazelwood Science Coordinator Susan Raney for rolling up her sleeves and joining right in the soggy fun.