March 31, 2012

Cleaning up the Confluence!

4th Annual Confluence Trash Bash 2012
Columbia Bottom Conservation Area, Spanish Lake, MO
March 24, 2012
Rivermile 0-5 – River Stages: St Charles – 23.4 ft; Alton – 14.5; St. Louis – 19.5

Hosted by Confluence Partnership, St. Louis Metropolitan Sewer District, St. Louis Audubon, Arnold Stream Team 211, Grace Hill Americorps, Piasa Palisades Sierra Club and a bunch of other businesses, municipalities and organizations

text by Steve Schnarr, photos by John Ruskey and Melanie Cheney, paintings by John Ruskey

We finally got one. After three years of flooding and miserable cold/rainy/snowy weather, this year the Trash Bash landed on a glorious spring weekend. You can’t help but feeling unsettled by the mild winter and early, uniformly beautiful spring. But you also can’t help but get out and enjoy it.

Every year, we keep the option of camping somewhere down at the Confluence for this event, but cold and rain keeps putting us up in cheap hotel rooms. This time, we hooked up with our friends at Big Muddy Adventures (on an adventure that will be described later) and set up camp on the tail end of Duck Island, tucked on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River just downstream of the Confluence. After scouting our sites for the next day’s cleanup, we landed on the island only to be greeted by a beautiful rainbow.
4th annual Confluence Trash Bash 3-24-12
Our Duck Island Camp. photo by John Ruskey
Our part of the Trash Bash is to take a group of volunteers out on the river in boats to clean up the Confluence itself.  Being blessed with perfect weather this time, we were able to go a little further than in Trash Bashes past, actually getting the St. Louis side of the Confluence as well as the mouth of Coldwater Creek, a major urban tributary entering the Missouri at Fort Bellefontaine Park. We were joined this year by two Army Corps of Engineers biologists Megan Kerrick & Ben McGuire and their boat.

Other sites in the Trash Bash include North Riverfront Park, sites along the Maline, Watkins and Coldwater Creeks, some areas on Chouteau Island on the Illinois side, Creve Coeur Lake Park and a massive tire dump on Fee Fee Creek.

Melanie was leading a site along Maline Creek, so she and I headed to the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge where all the NW St. Louis sites were meeting. We gathered our crews together, did a safety talk then headed to our sites.

4th annual Confluence Trash Bash 3-24-12
Melanie's Crew on Site 12 on the Maline. photo by Melanie Cheney
4th annual Confluence Trash Bash 3-24-12Half our our volunteers were from the Washington University Alpha Phi Omega Service Fraternity. Great kids from a great organization. APO chapters across the state come to help at our clean-ups, always bringing more than 20 folks out to make it happen.

We had a sizable River Relief crew, with even our buddy Mike Smith from Washington, MO, coming to help. Friends from Missouri American Water, Boeing and Biomerieux showed up and we hit the river. All in all, we had 50 volunteers at our site, hitting three four different locations.

Because we had done a really big cleanup last year, this time we focused on spots missed last fall. There was plenty of trash to be hauled out of there, and couldn’t be a more beautiful day to do it.
Volunteers roll countless tires from the floodplain. photo courtesy Arnold Stream Team 211

The best thing about the Trash Bash is that you get to see the impact made in your area, but simultaneously there are groups all over the region making a similar or even greater impact. Our friends with Arnold Stream Team 211 gathered a team of really hard workers to remove tires from the floodplain along Fee Fee Creek. Our board member Francis Baum joined in the effort. These tires are thought to have been scattered from a landfill during a past flood and have been flooded several times since, scattering the tires throughout the riparian forest. This will be a project that takes several massive efforts.

A really great lunch was served up by Confluence Partnership, and then we hit the river again to haul all that trash in. Everything was loaded in boats, which were then trailered and hauled up to the dumpster. We hauled scrap metal and tires back to the Chain of Rocks Bridge to be added to the huge piles there. Including a massive metal tank of some kind dug out of the bank at Columbia Bottom which needed about six people to move.

4th annual Confluence Trash Bash 3-24-12
Trash is unloaded from the trailered boat into a dumpster. photo by Melanie Cheney
After we cleaned up the ramp, we headed out to the Confluence to drift among the swirling junction of the continent’s two longest rivers. The Missouri was cresting, and was pushing huge swirls of muddy water far out into the Mississippi. Massive flocks of cormorants streamed above as we were tossed about in the eddies. We drifted down the Mississippi side of Duck Island, viewing the eagle nest there from afar to not disturb the nesting couple there.

Eventually we ran into John Ruskey and Mark Peoples filling one of their Bell canoes with driftwood. It was their second load and they had moved our campfire down to the sandy point of Duck Island. We parked in a foamy eddy at the point and gathered for a some serious river time with a group of our favorite river lovers. Some lunch leftovers were donated to our camp and were supplemented with healthy snacks. Everyone took turns wandering the island and a driftwood bonfire drew everyone in. Ominous clouds gave way to a beautiful sunset. Cleanup organizers Natalie Johnson and Laura Cohen got ferried over for a moment of relaxation after the firestorm of 750 volunteers.
4th annual Confluence Trash Bash 3-24-12
The sun sets over the Mississippi River and a forest of planted driftwood. photo by Melanie Cheney.

After nightfall, we set up a projector and screen (with a generator tucked far away behind a sandbank) and watched a film about John Ruskey’s adventures last year riding the crest of the Great Flood of 2011 through the state of Mississippi. With a backdrop of the river itself, this film festival had the venue down!

Another short film we watched was about the Circumnavigation of St. Louis. This is the expedition that the Big Muddy Adventures Crew is still doing. Big Muddy Mike Clark, Driftwood Johnny Ruskey and Mark “Rivers” Peoples, “Queen Bee” Betsy Tribble and David Hanson from Seattle were working their way up the Mississippi River in light glass canoes. Their journey had started at the confluence of the Bourbouse and Meremec Rivers, scribing a circle around the greater St. Louis metropolitan area on a highway of rivers.

After pausing at Duck Island for a day, taking a group of Trash Bashers to the island by canoe to remove trash, they would be heading around the Confluence and 70 miles up the Big Muddy. Their virtual passengers were from 7 grades of St. Ann’s of Normandy School, following their adventures online and researching their own topics related to the trip. I’d be joining them Sunday morning, just as David Hanson was getting off and heading back home.
The Circumnavigation Crew heads upstream toward the 367 bridge. photo by John Ruskey

You can read all their expedition journals, check out their amazing photographs, view John Ruskey’s watercolors and see the postings of St. Ann student at the Big Muddy Adventures Schoolhouse Blog.

Around 11 on Sunday, our River Relief crew had packed up and headed to shore. I hopped in a canoe with Mike and Betsy and up we paddled. I stayed on for two days, getting up to St. Charles. It was a powerful and humbling experience, and I hurt for days after. These guys kept going to Washington, MO, 68 miles up the Missouri. From there they would be portaging their canoe overland for 10 miles to hook up with the Bourbouse and finish their trip around St. Louis with a brisk downstream float.

John Ruskey's watercolor of the Circumnavigation (in dark blue). 

John Ruskey watercolor of a side chute on the Missouri River.