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Project AWARE

2007 — Raccoon

In 2007, I did not yet know how cool Project AWARE was, so I only participated for one day on the Raccoon River. Nonetheless, it was a good introduction to this week long paddle cleanup and also a nice warm up for the Dutchman Triathlon.

2008 — Winnebago, Shell Rock, and Cedar

My overly long 2008 Project AWARE trip report recounts my experiences cleaning up the Winnebago, Shell Rock, and Cedar Rivers in wake of the devastating floods that inundated Iowa earlier that year.

2009 — Cedar

The flotilla of boats that made AWARE possible

The flotilla of boats that made AWARE possible

For a second straight year, the Cedar River did not wish to be cleaned. Although there was no massive flooding as in 2008, the water level was still too high to safely remove trash from the river in canoes. Also, with the high water much of the trash would have been submerged and the boats would have floated over the treasure.

But the show must go on, so the AWARE staff cranked themselves into high gear and miraculously made last minute paddling accommodations for 100+ people. We moved from traversing one of Iowa’s largest rivers to cleaning smaller streams and lakes in the area. These rivers, however, were actually relatively undisturbed and did not warrant a cleanup on the scale of AWARE. Still, trash was removed and everyone had nice paddles, especially considering the little time available for planning these trips. Although it is always better to find clean rivers as we did, it is also nice to actually remove garbage since there are so many rivers that still need the work and the volunteers are sacrificing their time.

Cedar River

The sunset at Palisades-Kepler after a summer storm

The sunset at Palisades-Kepler after a summer storm

Even with the discombobulation and elevated rivers, we were still able to get on the Cedar for a couple of days with the help of the Living Lands & Waters folks. With their flat bottom boats and powerful motors, we were able to attack sites that were still inundated with flood debris, over a year after the disaster and even after multiple cleanups had already been through. It was truly amazing and saddening to know how much the river stole from people’s homes.

Down river even further, near Sutliff, the flooded river had picked up dozens of cabins and demolished them upon trees. The spot where they now lay had mostly been forgotten by FEMA and the land owners had little ability to deal with the disaster area themselves. AWARE volunteers descended upon the area and got to work. We hauled the cabins and other debris, piece by piece, into LL&W’s boats all day long. There was no possible way for us to get everything, but much debris was removed and the transformation of the area was amazing. The residents were truly humble and thankful for our efforts.


Troops waiting to be sent into battle against garbage

Troops waiting to be sent into battle against garbage

As always with paddlers, and specifically AWARE participants, the people transformed this trip from good to great. From staff, to volunteers, to locals, to sponsors, and everyone in between — we joined together to accomplish something that we were passionate about and made out little corner of the world just a little bit better. Cleaning the environment is rewarding in its own right, but it takes the experience to another level and makes a hard week much more enjoyable to be surrounded by these excellent people. AWARE can almost turn into a family reunion, reuniting paddlers from around the state (and even the country), some of who only see each other during this week each year. I was able to catch up with friends from the prior year and got to meet new ones as well.

2010 — Nishnabotna

Loading a giant tractor tire into a canoe-maran

Loading a giant tractor tire into a canoe-maran

This year’s AWARE headed to western Iowa and the Nishnabotna Rivers. For the first time since I started doing the full weeks, AWARE went off as planned. No excessive flood-induced delays, the planned routes were actually used, and the week went according to schedule. The only slight disappointment was the East and West Nish were relatively clean. An abundance of sediment dirtied the water, but not so much garage. The watershed was by no means perfect, as discarded items or the occasional dump site still lay along the riverbanks, but it lacked the constant stream of trash which previous AWAREs encountered. Having a semi-clean river is not the worst thing in the world though. The dearth of trash also allowed us paddlers to enjoy the river a bit more, instead of having to constantly pull refuse. We still worked hard, but could swim a lot more, good around, and generally just enjoy the float.

I will not bore you with any long-winded details, but once again AWARE was a great week — cleaning the river, learning, and meeting great people. Everyone on AWARE is relaxed, kind-hearted, helpful, and just the kind of people that being around makes you a better person. As always the staff did a magnificent job both planning and executing, treating all the volunteers like first class travelers. Cannot wait until next year, even if Ironman Lake Placid will slightly complicate things for me.

2011 — Turkey and Volga

Using a double wide to float tractor tires down the river

Using a double wide to float tractor tires down the river

The 9th edition of AWARE brought the gang to northeast Iowa and the [Little] Turkey and Volga Rivers. These bodies of water were in stark contrast to last year’s Nishnabotna, with their crystal clear water, great scenery, and loads of junk. With the pure water, much of the extracted trash originally lay on the bottom of the river and not its banks. While floating downstream we could look down and spot it on the bottom.

Fording the mighty river to reach the canoes

Fording the mighty river to reach the canoes

It was the year of the tire, with over 600 exhumed from their watery graves, or close to 100 a day. The river also contained the standard assortment of farm equipment, beer cans, and other miscellaneous items intentionally and inadvertently left there. Much sweat, ax-o-matics, and elbow grease was used to move these items often buried items from the water into canoes, while simultaneously managing to not hurt anyone in the process.

Clayton County did a excellent job of supporting this effort, arranging great areas to camp, places to go in the evenings, and everything else the traveling circus required. The locals appreciated our efforts as well, donating goods, providing nighttime entertainment, and offering their thanks.

The staff hauling a giant tire straight up the bank

The staff hauling a giant tire straight up the bank

Meeting the AWARE family at this reunion was once again a great time, as well as reconnecting with old friends and making new ones. As always the staff was amazing, with their planning, execution, and putting up with the sometimes rambunctious volunteers.

The only downside was how quickly the week passed. This one transpired faster than any prior AWARE, and it was over before I knew it, leaving me only to return to my desk job all too soon.

2014 — Big Sioux

After being away from The Project for a couple years due to traveling, I took a hiatus from the middle of my PCT thru hike to attend the gathering once again. After a long hitch, two days on a train, a bus ride, walking, and sleeping in a corn field I finally made it from California to northwest Iowa to clean up the Big Sioux River.

The canoes ready to hit the water

The pleasant river straddled the border of Iowa and South Dakota. The area experienced large floods several weeks prior, wreaking havoc. The waters had receded though allowing us to do our work. The deluge deposited some debris along the river, but most of the rubbish predated the rains. With the silty water and steep banks most trash was found up on the shoreline where we had to search for it. The majority of big junk came from a few trash piles intentionally dumped on the edge of farmers’ properties near the river.

Although I enjoy hauling trash from a river in a canoe, I mainly came back to AWARE to reunite with friends. I had not seen many of them in a while and may not have another chance to soon. Some new faces were around, but most were old, recognizable ones. Seemingly little had changed since I left. With all my solo vagabonding, being back among people I care about and in a community was also very comforting. Life is much more than seeing a bunch of interesting stuff.

The orange shirt wearing staff was again amazing in their organization, execution, enthusiasm, and just about every other aspect. Their dedication never ceases to amaze me, and they keep doing it year after year.

The bugs were the only downside. Although I enjoyed seeing fireflies again after being on the west coast, the mosquitoes, gnats, and biting flies attacked relentlessly, even while in the middle of the river. I wore my mosquitoes net several days and minimized exposed skin even on warm afternoons. At least the weather was great. It never rained and temperatures were mild, which made for nice days on the water.

Pictures from the 2014 Edition

Like ants swarming on an ant hill, the volunteers attack piles of garbage
A hog feeder being removed on a canoemaran
The organized chaos of loading over a hundred people into canoes all at once
Tires pulled from the river