Chad Pregracke's attire says it all. He wears a muddy life jacket, muddy boots, muddy pants, muddy shirt and a sweat-stained cap that also happens to be muddy. The reason for the muddy look is that the 27-year-old toils tirelessly along the banks of America's major rivers.
"I pretty much grew up on the river," Pregracke said. "If I wasn't fishing, I was diving for mussels, and if I wasn't doing either of those, I was just goofing off. But I was always at the river."
"The river" was the Mississippi, close to his home in East Moline, Illinois.
He's still almost always near a river, but now he's doing everything he can to make rivers better.
The "Quad Cities" is his home base, but his work takes him up and down the Illinois, Missouri, Mississippi and Ohio rivers for 11 months of the year. His work is picking up trash, and it's a one-piece-at-a-time occupation. It starts with a refrigerator here, a washing machine there, and tire after tire after tire.
Pregracke began his river cleaning campaign in 1997 by organizing and conducting the largest clean-up in the history of the Mississippi River.
"I just thought, yeah, I'll be like NASCAR and get a bunch of sponsors. It'll be cool," Pregracke said. "And it worked. This barge we're standing on used to be the Marquette barge lines headquarters. Our sponsors have paid for everything."
Pregracke's sponsors include Alcoa, Anheuser-Busch, ADM, Cargill, Caterpillar, the Argosy Foundation, Lafarge, Memco, River Way and Marquette barge lines.
"Results, not rhetoric" is Pregracke's mantra, and so far the results include more than 800 tons of trash removed from the rivers. Ninety percent of the trash he cleans up gets recycled, but the price of scrap metal pays only a small portion of his half-million-dollar-a-year budget. The remainder comes in the form of corporate cash and foundation support.
The funds have allowed the operation to grow to include a reconditioned tugboat, three barges, four work boats and four trucks.
Pregracke calls his barge operation "Living Lands and Waters" to call attention to the rivers' connection to the people along their banks.
Jim Karpowicz of Columbia brought Pregracke and his trash barge here for the first Missouri River clean-up in September, 2001. "It was right after 9/11," said Karpowicz. "People seemed to just want to get out and do something."
About 520 people showed up to haul