Chris Ragsdale, Steve Schnaar of Missouri River Relief, a volunteer, and I relax on the trash-laden boat. Chris Ragsdale, Steve Schnaar of Missouri River Relief, a volunteer, and I relax on the trash-laden boat. (Photo by: Tanner Aljets)

Chris Ragsdale, Steve Schnaar of Missouri River Relief, a volunteer, and I relax on the trash-laden boat. (Photo by: Tanner Aljets)

****!  I slept in, missing my 7:30 alarm and waking up at 8:05 A.M.  I had planned to make it to a Missouri River Relief trash clean-up that was an hour away at 9 A.M.  At first, I rolled over and considered falling back to sleep for another hour and just going to the next clean-up.  Besides, since my knee surgery two months prior, I had only began being able to walk without crutches two days before the event.  However, two minutes later, I was scrambling to get out the door.  Within ten minutes, I was on the highway and listening to my favorite song by the band, Yes, “Heart of the Sunrise”, which seemed fitting for the occasion.  As I spanned the Chain of Rocks bridge on interstate 270 (as I had mentioned previously in my Mosenthein Island blog post), the Mississippi River flowed tumultuously below.  I wanted to be on the water in the River Relief boats already!

The view of the Mississippi south of the I-270 bridge towards the Old Chain of Rocks bridge and Mosenthein Island to the right-center. (Photo by: Tanner Aljets)

The view of the Mississippi south of the I-270 bridge towards the Old Chain of Rocks bridge and Mosenthein Island to the right-center. (Photo by: Tanner Aljets)

I arrived at Sioux Passage Park around 9:10 only to realize that it was quite larger than I had anticipated.  Luckily, Missouri River Relief had signs, complemented with arrows that were able to seamlessly guide me down a winding road to the boat access site. I parked my car and quickly limped to the river, passing several tents of varying sizes clinging dearly to the ground as winds whipped them.  Luckily, there were still a couple scores of people still waiting to board the large, aluminum boats that were ferrying groups to several remote sites along the Missouri River.  As I approached the pile of life jackets, my friend, Chris, corralled me into a small group as we waited for further instruction.  Two of the people in our group were from the town next to mine in Illinois; how coincidental!  Soon, my friend, Steve Schnarr, the River Relief Program Director, briefed us for the mission and informed us that we would have to choose a team name. After a long pause, we became “Earnest Mustache” following a unanimous vote.  Everyone loved it.

Team “Earnest Mustache” was ready to pick the woods and banks clear of trash. (Photo by: Tanner Aljets)

Team “Earnest Mustache” was ready to pick the woods and banks clear of trash. (Photo by: Tanner Aljets)

Short moments later, everyone was on the boat braving the chilly morning as we traversed a segment of the final ten miles of the Missouri River prior to its confluence with the Mississippi just upstream from St. Louis, MO.  After the driver located our drop-off point, he expertly maneuvered towards the shore, carefully approaching the banks.  THUD! “Welcome to Illinois!” someone bellowed.  Departing the boat, I felt as if we were ascending the steepest, most gruesome slope on the river. Luckily, I had a crutch, so I was able to quickly scale the embankment.

An interesting cabin we saw on the Missouri riverside, modeled after an old steamboat (Photo by: Tanner Aljets)

An interesting cabin we saw on the Missouri riverside, modeled after an old steamboat (Photo by: Tanner Aljets)

We scoured the woods for three hours, compiling a rather large pile of trash bags and a few tires.  I put my healing knee to the test, combing the wooded, muddy terrain.  Thankfully, as my bag would get too heavy to carry, Chris would spontaneously appear at the perfect time to relay my bag back to our pile.  However, the true test for my knee was not until the litter collection was about to come to a close.  Chris was nowhere in sight, and I had just agreed to exchange bags with a young girl who had a densely-packed bag of what seemed to be mostly glass bottles.  I carried it for a couple hundred yards, slowly but surely.  As I neared our pile of bags, Chris miraculously appeared to assist me just as I was about to reach a breaking point with the bulky bag on my back.

Team “Earnest Mustache” gathered this trash from the banks and woods of the Missouri River. (Photo by: Tanner Aljets)

Team “Earnest Mustache” gathered this trash from the banks and woods of the Missouri River. (Photo by: Tanner Aljets)

As we drew nearer to the time that our boat would return, trash-laden people started appearing from different directions from the woods, congregating around the trash pile.  With ten minutes to spare, a small group of us returned to the woods with the hopes of finding a large, mangled buoy that Chris and I had previously encountered.  Chris must have been feeling especially powerful (or just nuts), because he hoisted the heavy buoy over his shoulder and carried it 75 yards or so to the path before tossing it down, THUD. Soon after, I witnessed the well-coordinated teamwork of three men as they carried it down the long path.  The buoy was the cherry-on-top with our large bounty of bags from the hunt. Earnest Mustache’s game was on point that day!

The mangled buoy we found resembled an old barrel. Note the anchoring-loops on the end. (Photo by: Tanner Aljets)

The mangled buoy we found resembled an old barrel. Note the anchoring-loops on the end. (Photo by: Tanner Aljets)

After the calming boat ride back, everyone was eating pizza and celebrating.  Meanwhile, kids participated in a unique trash finds competition (clean-up results posted HERE), which had several categories, “weirdest”, “oldest”, and “most-useful”, to name a few.  Soon after, River Relief was presented with a check from REI for $5,000 to pay for the clean-up! I found out that 184 volunteers had coalesced that day to help preserve the beauty of the Missouri River and, ultimately, the Lower Mississippi River with the iconic confluence just eleven miles downstream.

Volunteers exit boats after a successful clean-up. They hurried up the ramp for the hot pizza! (Photo by: Tanner Aljets)

Volunteers exit boats after a successful clean-up. They hurried up the ramp for the hot pizza! (Photo by: Tanner Aljets)

Later that afternoon, the River Relief crew and several straggling volunteers, including Chris and I, went back on the river to recover the trash from the remote locations where the volunteers had previously piled it up. As boats returned to the launch ramp, volunteers and River Relief staff would efficiently unload the fully-loaded vessels into a front-end loader.

A team of River Relief staff and volunteers, alike, relay trash and recyclables from boats to the loader. (Photo by: Tanner Aljets)

A team of River Relief staff and volunteers, alike, relay trash and recyclables from boats to the loader. (Photo by: Tanner Aljets)

In fact, volunteers gathered an estimated five TONS of trash and recyclable materials on that day alone, adding to River Relief’s all-time total of 842 tons since their 2001 inception. (MRR all-time clean-up totals) We even towed in a runaway dock in rough condition. (See other interesting finds, as well as trash statistics for the day HERE) With the collective power, emphasis on safety, and coordination of the River Relief team, the work felt much less like “work” and more like a day at the river should feel.  Many hands made for light work.

“Barge operator” Anthony Pettit hauls in the largest find of the day, a derelict dock we had to dismantle. (Photo by: Tanner Aljets)

“Barge operator” Anthony Pettit hauls in the largest find of the day, a derelict dock we had to dismantle. (Photo by: Tanner Aljets)

So why, exactly, would around two hundred folks come out to pick trash up on a Saturday?  There are many reasons, but the first few that come to mind for me are that it is extremely fun working with other people contributing to the same cause, everyone loves being around the river, and that the work we do positively affects everyone downstream from us.  Realistically, we all live downstream from somebody else, from the headwaters to the Gulf of Mexico on both the Mississippi and Missouri, so it is crucial to be good stewards when the water is passing through our region.  With more volunteers finding their roles in hands-on work and more concerned River Citizens finding their voices, “more hands” will continue to make even “lighter work”.

To participate in similar events, contact your local 1 Mississippi Outreach Assistant and ask them about upcoming volunteer opportunities – It is a blast!

Thanks for reading!
Tanner Aljets
1 Mississippi Illinois/Missouri Outreach Assistant

Chris found what appears to be Mile Marker 11.4 of the Missouri River. He let me keep it! (Photo by: Chris Ragsdale)

Chris found what appears to be Mile Marker 11.4 of the Missouri River. He let me keep it! (Photo by: Chris Ragsdale)

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