I was waist-deep in chocolate-brown water, my feet sunk ankle-deep in gooey Des Moines River mud, and I was gripping the waterlogged backrest of an overstuffed recliner, helping wrestle it onto the floor of a green fiberglass canoe.
It was my first day on Project AWARE (A Watershed Awareness River Expedition) on the Des Moines River through Van Buren County in southeast Iowa. My wife and I had paddled for only an about hour before finding ourselves drenched and grimy as part of a canoe and kayak armada helping clear the river of an amazing assortment of garbage, big and small.
And this was our vacation. We were among hundreds of volunteers who took time off work for the event’s 14th annual edition, July 11-15, sponsored by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) with help from numerous sponsors.
It’s dirty, smelly work, but paddling the river also can be serene and picturesque, and it’s a terrific chance to meet like-minded, outdoorsy and friendly people. It’s no wonder volunteers return year after year, each time on a different river segment. It’s like RAGBRAI on the river, without the crowds and mass partying.
A healthy dose of Iowa science – and history – also is imparted over the four nights that volunteers camp along the route. During our time on the project, we learned more about the natural history of the area where we now live part-time.
This year’s Project AWARE covered the lower Des Moines River through Van Buren County, from Eldon (home of the famous American Gothic house) to the Turkey Run Access southwest of Donnellson in Lee County. It would stop Wednesday night at Bentonsport, the hamlet just across the river from the house where my wife, Paula Mohr, grew up.
It was nearby (so we could opt for privacy, hot showers and air conditioning rather than a tent and sleeping bags). We had the Mohr family aluminum canoe, still seaworthy after more than 50 years (although the DNR provides canoes for those who don’t have one). We had to do it.
Paula and I signed on for Tuesday, going 14.6 miles from Selma to the boat ramp at Austin Park, a Van Buren County property near the unincorporated town of Pittsburg; and Wednesday, going 14.5 miles from Austin Park to Bentonsport, a picturesque former boomtown that now hosts a few shops, homes and bed and breakfasts.
But Project AWARE is more than just pulling junk from the river. Experts on a range of science and history subjects deliver lectures each night at the campgrounds where pooped-out paddlers pitch their tents.
The programs let participants learn more about the river they’re paddling, said organizer Lynette Seigley of the DNR’s Water Quality Bureau. “It makes it more meaningful. For a lot of volunteers, they haven’t been here before.” The DNR works with local planning committees that suggest experts and subjects. This year, “we had more program options than we could fit in,” she added. Particularly with Van Buren County, which relies a lot on tourism, “you want (volunteers) to come back and visit” and the talks provide context.
Subjects ranged from a visit to the American Gothic House to a detailed exploration of climate change with Connie Mutel, an Iowa City science writer whose book, “A Sugar Creek Chronicle” details the visible impact it’s had on her family’s rural acreage.
On Monday night, we heard Cynthia Peterson, an Army Corps of Engineers archaeologist describe the discovery and excavation of the Iowaville Native American village site near Eldon. The 32-acre Ioway tribe settlement, last occupied in 1825, has yielded thousands of artifacts, including gun parts, beads, jewelry, pottery and more.
Lance Foster, a member of the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska and its tribal historic preservation officer, followed Peterson and filled in the blanks on the Ioway’s history, including how repercussions from eastern Native American wars led to their relocation from the northern part to the southern part of what is now Iowa. The tribe was pushed further south and west through resettlement treaties with the U.S. government, and finally split into two groups, one in Oklahoma and the other in Kansas and Nebraska.
Attendance was sparse – 50 or so people out of the 325 registered for some or all of Project AWARE, and a few of those were non-participating locals. That’s not unusual, Seigley said: Many AWARE volunteers are long-timers who prefer to relax and socialize rather than listen to a lecture: “It’s like a family reunion.”
But science education isn’t restricted just to the evening programs – or to the weeklong event. One of the people I met was Chuck Tonelli, a science teacher at Cedar Rapids Metro High School, the district’s alternative school. He and a colleague have brought students on AWARE.
“Our goal is to connect kids and their education to their futures,” Tonelli said, by emphasizing on hands-on, community-based approaches. The youths who have worked on AWARE have shared their experiences in class. Tonelli and his colleagues also have tapped Seigley and other DNR officials for classroom resources.
This was Tonelli’s fifth Project AWARE. It was Mary Koester’s ninth. She and her husband, David, teach science in Carroll Catholic schools. Koester taught units on watersheds to her middle school classes even before her first AWARE, around 11 years ago. But paddling so many Iowa waterways have given her additional insights she brings into the classroom.
“You don’t really know the river until you’re on it,” she said. An earlier Project AWARE trip on the Nishnabotna, a river Koester has spent much of her life driving over and by, drove home that lesson. She learned how the river fought attempts to straighten and channelize it. “The river is trying to get back to a meandering path,” she said. “You can try to stop it, but the river will try” to leave the path set for it.
Paddling a river also gives you a close look at large-scale agriculture’s impact. More than once we saw fields planted right to the water’s edge. Koester says that in some cases she actually saw cornstalks slumped into the water.
That brings in another science aspect to Project AWARE: All along the route, volunteers with the IOWATER program took samples from streams and outlets that lead into the Des Moines, helping track possible contamination sources.
Throughout the event, many of the people I met were science teachers like Tonelli and Koester, environmental science college students and graduates, and people who work with environmental agencies. But just as many were typical folks out to enjoy and clean up the outdoors.
Al Mast is a crane operator at the John Deere Waterloo Foundry. He caught my eye on the river as he joked with and sang to the three kids (all sitting in a recovered tire, like three men in a tub) he and his girlfriend, Laura Wolff, had in their canoe. Two of the children are Wolff’s – six-year-old Willa and four-year-old Finn – and two are Mast’s, seven-year-old Hinley and nine-year-old Briar (who rode in a second canoe with Mast’s uncle).
Most kids spend too much time in front of video games – although not his, Mast said. He wants his children to get outdoors. “This is the type of person I want them to become” – caring for and invested in the environment and willing to volunteer and work in the community.
Like most people on Project AWARE, Mast had a story about something he’s pulled from the river this year: a Honda CR 230 motorcycle. (As a dirt bike rider, Mast recognized the model instantly.) And that was one of the smaller things volunteers found. “People don’t understand the size of the material we’re able to get on a canoe,” he added.
Tonelli said something similar: “You wouldn’t know it to look at it, but you have a group of people who pulled a thousand-pound (capacity) Dumpster out of the river … and paddled it eight miles down the river.”
Koester first got my attention when I overheard her saying she had helped pull out a bathtub on Monday. “It wasn’t full-size, but it was deep,” she added. It was one of at least three such tubs gathered on Monday, Seigley said. (Rumor is they’re somehow used in catfish noodling.)
“We never know what we’re going to find,” Seigley said – except tires, a frequent river castoff. Volunteers pulled in 104 on Monday alone, when they paddled only 4.7 miles on the river. The Army Corps of Engineers raised the level in Saylorville Lake, dropping levels in the lower Des Moines River to reveal objects on the shores. It also made the trip safer for paddlers.
Paula and I failed to snag a tire, but we got our fair share of junk. We resurrected metal fence posts, metal sheets, electrical wire and other materials. On Tuesday we were paddling to Austin Park when two young men on the shore flagged us down. They had found the recliner and needed help getting the waterlogged padding into their craft.
We ended up taking a small part of the chair ourselves and helped the two men – one of whom was a recent environmental science graduate – bail out their canoe as the cushions they took in bled murky water.
A mile or two farther down the river, we saw two more young men struggling with something near the shore. They were fishing out a second recliner. (To my eye it was a mate with the first one, but I can’t say for sure.) This time we pulled a big chunk of the padding into our canoe, which suddenly sat noticeably lower in the water.
Volunteers pulled in much more: at least two car frames; an entire inboard-outboard boat, flipped on its top and partially buried in a sandbar; and a huge plastic pipe, probably 8 inches in diameter and so long it was strapped to two canoes to transport, like a catamaran.
“It’s kind of sad when you think about how dirty (the river) is,” Mast said.
But, Seigley said, it’s also satisfying to make a dent in the detritus: “At the end of the day you have a pile of trash and you feel like you’ve accomplished something.”
Paula and I – and our aching muscles – agree.