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Home » Endurance » Paddling » Project AWARE » 2008

AWARE 2008 — Floods Happen

My paddle partner and I

My paddle partner for the most of the week and myself

After participating in several river cleanups and spending a single day on Project AWARE the prior year, I took the plunge and dedicated an entire week to the worthwhile effort in 2008. This Project AWARE thing is a weeklong river cleanup sponsored by the Iowa DNR. Volunteers in canoes float down a river and remove all (or at least the vast majority) of trash that scours the shoreline. Big or small, almost everything comes out; it is surprising how much can be carried in a canoe. Left behind this flotilla is a more aesthetically pleasing, healthier river with better habitat. Less raw materials used in modern society needs to be extracted from the ground as well, since literally tons of trash that was previously rotting on the riverbank, leaking poisonous chemicals are recycled into useful materials and artwork. While hauling other people’s trash might sound like a strange way to spend a vacation, the work is worthwhile, necessary, and even fun.

Although originally scheduled for June, the 2008 AWARE had to be postponed until August due to the debilitating floods that plagued Iowa. Almost every river was out of its banks, and water covered every campsite reserved for the expedition. Removing trash from the river in those conditions would have been near impossible, not to mention absurdly dangerous. When the delayed event eventually transpired though, the effects of those floods significantly shifted the mood of the cleanup throughout the week.

The Trash

A Project AWARE volunteer uses ingenuity to tow a large amount of trash behind his canoe

Ingenuity and some strong arm muscles are required to haul everything from the river

While I would have been on the trip regardless of the deluge, the devastation provided a new source of motivation and commitment during the trip. Although not the ideal attitude, I often become frustrated or outright mad at people who deliberately dump garbage in the river. Seriously, how can a person see a couple tires or hazardous materials lying around and think that throwing them into the water would be the appropriate way to dispose of them? Ideally people would be smarter and less lazy than that, but unfortunately, that is not always the case. As the cleanup progressed, however, we found many items whose owner never wanted them in the river. Floods swept away possessions, minor and significant, that were still part of peoples’ lives. Volunteers found toys, luggage, and even an intact dock that were being used responsibly up until the moment of the water stole them. The floods had risen and overtaken buildings no one ever fathomed would receive water. Foreign objects were lodged fifteen feet above the water line, indicating how high the uncontrollable river had reached.

As a result of the floods, more debris polluted the river than normal. Some of the unnatural objects were large structures; others were smaller items that had not been secured during the high water. This type of debris is not normally found on river cleanups but had succumbed to the river’s power. Although there was also the normal limitless cans and bottles suffocating the shoreline. The floods had exaggerated some of these concentrations though, and the snags on the riverbank had collected literally boatloads of bottles. The river also provided all the needed evidence that plastic bags should be outlawed (or at least their use greatly curbed). Downstream from populated areas, the trees and banks were blanketed with these scourges. The detrimental eyesores were intertwined in almost every branch, leaving their legacy.

Removing a large tire from the river

Removing a large tire from the river

Even if they may not get as dirty as Project AWARE participants, most residents along the river want a clean waterway. These people, however, had their houses destroyed and lives immeasurably altered by the floods. So their immediate concerns involved the destruction surrounding them, rather than the health of the river that just annihilated their homes. These conditions though, allowed the AWARE volunteers an opportunity to assist those affected by the flood, as well as help the environment as usual. With the work performed that week, by the time the residents are able to rebuild, hopefully a clean, healthy river will await. The quality of the river in their backyard will be one less concern after so much hard work restoring their lives. Perhaps a beautiful watershed can provide a relaxing oasis from that stressful part of their lives.

The People

Friends I met on AWARE at the final celebration

Besides some possibly abstract benefit to the river, the people on AWARE make participating worthwhile. The volunteers do amazing work, giving it their all to remove all manner of trash. The staff does an outstanding job as well, hauling the collection of trash from the boats and sorting it to be recycled. Their logistical organization and attention to safety and detail are amazing. Although orchestrating Project AWARE may be their job for the week, the staff has a passion that goes far beyond a paycheck, working long, hard days from before sunrise to well after sunset to make the week a success.

Project AWARE participants are not altruistic, tree-hugging, hippies ether (I am not one after all). In fact, the week can be pleasant with purely selfish ambitions. For the minute price of picking up bottles and other small trash along the river (you are not required to dig out appliances after all, it is just more fun that way) the DNR provides transportation, logistics, camping space, and canoes. The only expense is reasonably prices, copious amounts of food. You are even welcome to bring your own provisions, if you would prefer. I doubt the DNR would much care if someone tried to take advantage of the system this way either. Because after a week (or even a couple of days) spent with some of the most dedicated, good natured people and witnessing first hand the state of the rivers, I believe most anyone would be a convert to acknowledging the work required to fix the rivers. They may not remove buried tires on their next personal leisure float, but they sure will not be using the river as an alternative landfill.

Playing Uno

Epic games of Uno are a vital part of AWARE

Project AWARE also gives an individual the opportunity to do the right thing while setting a good example, but not obnoxiously cram environmentalism down someone else’s throat. Although legislation has its place, for the most part people should act responsibly because they see its inherit merits, not because they are forced to. Education is the only lasting, scalable way to fix problems. People do not like an outsider telling them what to do anyway.

With other things on the horizon for next year, I unfortunately may not have the time for the whole week again next year, but will be sure to spend at least a couple days on the river. It may even be coming through my town, continuing the cleanup of flood debris to some of the hardest hit parts of the state.