It’s a blustery October morning. Liz Doubet and I are on a remote, willow-covered riverbank, hard at work on a River Relief cleanup.
“Dinosaur!” she exclaims. I’m there in a second, and lo and behold, we’re looking at the remains of a dinosaur, mostly buried under eons of sand. Sure enough, we can make out its facial features. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve dreamed of digging up a dinosaur. But this dinosaur is purple and is made of plastic. I think it’s a kid’s sandbox.
The brittle purple dinosaur starts to break apart in my hands as we tug against the buried reptile from the Plasticene era. Half a dinosaur is better than none, I tell myself. Liz, on the other hand, is determined to get it all, even though trees have taken root on top of it. She starts digging it out with a canoe paddle. As a long-time River Relief volunteer, removing river trash is a personal mission. She is like a warrior on a crusade.
While she shovels frantically, I step back and take stock of the scene. A dozen beached canoes are scattered along a 300-yard wing dike on the Missouri River, just upstream from Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area. Volunteers wrapped in winter garb are combing the banks of this backwater area, which was scouted earlier by River Relief staff.
The spot is inaccessible to their normal “plate boats,” which are large aluminum johnboats that can carry tons of trash. This canoe-based cleanup allows volunteers to get higher up into these pockets of trash, where there are lots of old bottles, plastic bags, and dinosaurs. Once the dinosaur extraction is complete, we head into thicker stands of willow. Every one of us has the giddiness of a treasure hunter, except on this hunt the treasure is trash.
“Check this out!” My 9-year-old daughter, Naomi, discovers a massive, unbroken light bulb, almost the size of her head. Somehow it has floated possibly hundreds of miles and miraculously stayed intact. She holds up a glass soda bottle with equal excitement. I realize she is from a generation of plastic. Glass was mainly from my generation.
River Relief’s t-shirt says, “Good, trashy fun,” and it’s true. All 60 volunteers, along with the River Relief staff, are out having fun, enjoying a late fall day on the river and the challenge of cleaning up one more pocket of trash. Everyone is shouting encouragement and sharing finds. The mood is part party and part get ’er done. It is a river rat reunion. Sure, there are newbies, but their spirit and passion are the same.
We All Live Downstream
In 15 years, Missouri River Relief has evolved from a gaggle of river gypsies determined to clean up the river to a well-oiled, seasoned not-for-profit. River Relief was inspired by an early partnership with Chad Pregracke’s Living Lands and Waters. Chad inspired a movement that has spawned successful river cleanups on the Missouri, Mississippi, and Ohio rivers. River Relief focuses its efforts on the Missouri River. Progress is often measured in decades, but out here, progress is measured one discarded water bottle at a time. So far, volunteers have pulled 1.7 million pounds of trash from the Missouri River and its banks. Some of it is predictable, some of it not.
“I’d say the most common items we find are Styrofoam, single-use plastic bottles, tires, coolers, balls, and flipflops,” says Melanie Cheney, River Relief’s assistant program manager. “But we’ve also found probably 40 to 50 messages-in-a-bottle, three hot tubs, a piano, a Studebaker hubcap, and yes, even the kitchen sink!”
To date, River Relief has conducted more than 150 river cleanups, making a visible and lasting difference in more than 30 river communities. More than 22,500 volunteers have hauled tons of trash from 1,088 river miles.
Close to 20,000 students and teachers have taken part in more than 100 river education events. River Relief has also been involved in many water monitoring, planting, and habitat restoration projects.
“Missouri River Relief is a community- and equipment based nonprofit whose mission is to connect people to the Missouri River through hands-on river cleanups, education events, and stewardship activities,” says River Relief Director Jeff Barrow. “River Relief provides unique opportunities for people to experience the Missouri River up close with the overall goal of restoring this tremendous resource for future generations.”
It's Not Just About the Trash
River Relief isn’t just after your trash. You might say the organization also wants your mind.
“Volunteers love the feeling of accomplishment from seeing an area strewn with trash turn into an immaculate piece of riverbank,” says Steve Schnarr, River Relief’s program manager. “Plus, people just love getting out on the river and working with other positive people. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people leave a cleanup saying, ‘I’m never buying a plastic bottle again.’ Part of what we do at a cleanup is help people realize that most of this trash was not dumped right there on the river. Most of it has washed into the river from streets and communities upstream. It starts in our own backyards.
Then people shift from being angry to wanting to change things back home, or to wondering what we can do to change our communities to make things better here on the river.” The heart and soul of Missouri River Relief is the crew.
“It would be impossible to pull all of this off without them,” Steve says. “These are volunteers that put in extra hours and weekends, traveling throughout the river valley to help put on events in a variety of communities.
“A lot of these folks are attracted to the hands-on work of river cleanup. They are passionate about introducing people to the Missouri River and enjoy the challenges. I think the positive sense of community, even family, is what keeps our crew coming back year after year.” In addition to hosting events statewide, River Relief also takes part in cleanups in Iowa, Nebraska, and as far away as South Dakota. To volunteer for an event near you this summer or fall, visit riverrelief.org.
The Missouri River: Up Close and Personal
Most people only get to know the Missouri River by driving over it on a bridge. Taking part in a cleanup changes that perspective forever.
“It’s a transformative experience for most folks to get on a boat on the river. That’s how you really get a sense of the scale of it. That this is really big nature we are talking about here,” Steve says. “Even just a mile or two from any town on the river, you can feel like you are in a wilderness. I love seeing that change take place over a morning. People can be very apprehensive about getting on a boat in the morning, but they come back two hours later with confidence and huge smiles. It recharges me every time I see that.
“I have seen volunteers come to cleanups and walk away inspired to change things in their own community. We can’t pick up every piece of trash, but our work does cause ripples of change that spread up and downstream.”
The Take-Away From Trash
“To a fourth grader, trash is tangible,” Steve says. “Watershed conservation might not be. Trash is something a classroom of students can pick up in an afternoon and immediately make a difference. That day might be a kid’s most memorable day at school for the entire year.” While students are ankle deep in river gumbo, wrestling old tires and liberating Styrofoam, they are picking up something more lasting than just a discarded tire.
They’re choosing a future that includes a cleaner river. The moment may soon be forgotten, but for some, it may be the moment they become lifelong conservationists.
Bringing a Clean River Message to the Classroom and Beyond
Not all of River Relief’s efforts are conducted in rubber boots at the river’s edge. The organization has expanded its outreach efforts to bring the river to you. In addition to River Relief’s popular speaker series, River Relief’s Education Coordinator Kristen Schulte has an ambitious calendar of teacher workshops and events to help bring the river to classrooms and students to the river.
“A recent EPA environmental education grant is helping us build a network of river action teams along the river, conduct a river educator workshop, and host an onthe- river experiential summer camp,” Kristen says.
Also in the works is an annual “River Rendezvous” gathering of the Missouri River Action Teams (MoRATs), including race directors, cleanup coordinators, wildlife habitat managers, scientists, and others interested and involved with river issues.
“Our partnership with the EPA also allows River Relief to offer mini-grants to organizations for stewardship, education, and outreach activities. This supports conservation and education all along the Missouri River here and in Nebraska, Iowa, and Kansas,” Kristen says.
The Battle for Trash Continues
And so these warriors continue the fight to rid the Missouri River of trash and to promote the message of a cleaner river for future generations. Die-hard River Relief volunteers continue to answer the call. They are joined by more and more schoolchildren each year.
“River Relief, Stream Team 1875, is one of the largest teams in our Stream Team program. They have contributed some of the greatest tonnages of trash collected in the history of the program,” says Amy Meier, a Stream Team coordination biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation. “I am constantly impressed with their wide-ranging approaches and fresh ideas to bring more people to the banks of the Big Muddy. They incorporate art, music, history, and culture into their efforts, which is why they’re so successful. Whether they are in big cities, small river towns, or anywhere in between, they always seem perfectly at home.”
For the River Relief crew, being at home is being on the river. On any given weekend, they are likely up before dawn, in a fog-filled river bottom, doing a final check on the plate boat before the day’s volunteers show up, eager to chip in. They are probably sporting muddy waders and are fueled up on coffee. They know the day’s battle plan well. They know that in addition to trash, those volunteers may pick up something bigger — perhaps a new appreciation for a river that has finally found its voice, a river flowing right past their back door.
Making a Difference, One River at a Time
In addition to River Relief, more than 5,200 other Streams Teams statewide are helping Missouri’s waterways by picking up trash, monitoring water quality, planting trees, and hosting educational events and water festivals.
Forming a Stream Team is easy and free. Goals include education, stewardship, and advocacy for Missouri streams. The Missouri Stream Team Program is sponsored by the Conservation Department, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, and the Conservation Federation of Missouri. For more information, call 800-781-1989 or visit Mostreamteam.org or Facebook.com/mostreamteams
Big Muddy Speaker Series
River Relief’s monthly Big Muddy Speaker Series is now being held in Rocheport, Kansas City, and St. Charles. This series, thanks to a partnership with organizations like Greenway Network and Healthy Rivers Partnership, hosts free talks and brings experts together to discuss diverse Missouri River topics, including biology, hydrology, history, and more. For more information, visit bigmuddyspeakers.org.