The Mississippi River is indeed mighty. It flows south for over 2,300 miles from Lake Itasca, in northern Minnesota, to the Gulf of Mexico, making the ancient waterway one of the longest rivers in the world. Unfortunately, the Mississippi also functions as one of America’s largest garbage cans. Each section of the river contains hundreds of islands, where, when the water rises, trash and junk wash up.
Last spring break, Cassie Metz ’17 got to see the garbage firsthand. Metz joined 30 Illinois State students and faculty advisor John Baldwin, a professor in the School of Communication, on land and water to help with a massive cleanup along the river as part of an Alternative Breaks trip. The setting was scenic Grafton, Illinois, where the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers meet about 40 miles north of St. Louis.
Metz trudged through river island muck to round up trash and bent low to the ground in forests above the river to extricate honeysuckle roots. Metz, a double major from Bensenville, enjoyed the trip, despite all the backbreaking work, but conceded the size of the task was “a little bit overwhelming.”
The Illinois State students worked with students from 20 other colleges to help the environmental group Living Lands & Waters (LL&W). The combined group of about 140 people removed over 25,000 pounds of trash from the river, nearly two-thirds of the total 38,153 pounds of garbage that was removed that month from the Mississippi River. The students also cut huge swaths of invasive species from the wooded hills above the river and painted three dining halls at nearby Pere Marquette State Park.
The Illinois State students were volunteering as part of Alternative Breaks, a registered student organization supported by the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning. Since 2000, Alternative Breaks has organized multiple trips throughout the year focused on making a difference in the world.
This past year, students volunteered at a summer camp for children with disabilities in Paradise, Texas; restored trails in a state park in Paragould, Arkansas; installed solar panels in low-income neighborhoods in Sacramento, California; and as part of a partnership with the Honors Program, taught financial literacy to elementary students in New Orleans.
The students who join Alternative Breaks make great sacrifices to pursue what to many of them is the heartbeat of their college experience. They pack their bags and leave the comforts of Normal during winter, spring, or summer breaks to take on challenging tasks for people and places to which they previously had no connection.
Every year Living Lands & Waters crews head out from their home base in East Moline to meet up with college students on spring break to help clean up the Mississippi River. In addition, over the past 20 years, the group has worked cleanup projects on 24 rivers in 21 states with help from over 100,000 volunteers. Those efforts have seen 9.8 million pounds of debris hauled from U.S. waterways while planting more than 1.1 million trees.
Chad Pregracke founded LL&W in 1998. He embodies the power one person has to make a difference. Pregracke grew up on the Mississippi River near the Quad Cities. He didn’t like seeing the river he loves so much become increasingly polluted. So, he did something about it. He simply began by riding around in his boat picking up trash out of the river.
Word spread. Local businesses and media took interest, and soon his passion became his life’s work. He started his nonprofit, whose bold mission, in part, is to protect, preserve, and restore the natural environment of the nation’s major rivers and watersheds.
“It’s a patriotic thing to clean up our rivers,” Pregracke said.
“Clean is not green; it’s actually red, white, and blue. The goal is to help get the river clean and help keep the river clean.”
LL&W is now known worldwide and has a fleet of barges and workboats. In 2013 Pregracke was honored with the prestigious CNN Hero of the Year award.
Pregracke’s wife, Tammy Becker, has joined him in managing the growing operation that now includes a crew of 11 people and five dogs (Pork Chop, Travis, Bailey, Diesel, and Kota). They live on their barracks-like barge about nine months of the year cleaning up the environment. Dubbed “Teamwork,” the barge has a kitchen, bedrooms, bathrooms, laundry, and living space.
Every year the group also hosts education workshops, an adopt-a-river-mile program, invasive species removal, and the Million Trees Project. Illinois State students have volunteered with the latter program, as well.
Cleaning up a river is dirty and exhausting work, exposing the students to the elements, be they hot or cold. Students boarded johnboats in the morning light for a trip to the river’s islands, where all the junk that people toss into the river ends up. Students loaded up the garbage by hand and removed the trash by filling bags that were then loaded back on the boats to be delivered to the LL&W barge.
Music accompanied the student-volunteers wherever they worked. A speaker blasted what they termed their “Spring Break Playlist” high up in the bluffs balanced on an ATV or in the bow of a boat cutting across water to and from the islands.
Three boats went out each morning. One boat was kept empty for loading trash, and the other two carried about 15 students each; Pork Chop rode point in one boat. It was about a 30-minute ride to the islands, which had been scouted in advance by Living Lands & Waters staff. The days were usually split between island cleanup and invasive species clearing up in the bluffs.
LL&W’s education facilitator, Mike “Coach” Coyne-Logan, led the students. Coach is a former teacher who has been with Pregracke for 10 years. Students were in awe of his wild-eyed, wrestler-like persona.
“I love this work,” he said. “Eighty percent of pollution starts on land before it gets to the water. This is about reduction of waste and minimizing use of plastic and Styrofoam.” He added that 18 million people get their drinking water from “rivers that these ISU kids were helping to clean up.”
On the islands a trash line was established to efficiently separate the bags, barrels, plastic, and Styrofoam, among other grimy items. More than a few memorable pieces were found.
“We found a brown, sun-washed little kid’s car with a battery,” said junior Ben Wyland, a music education and flute performance major from Plainfield. “It probably used to be purple, maybe.”
Wyland also helped roll out a beer keg that was full of mud and water.
“It must’ve weighed about 75 pounds,” he said.
This was Wyland’s third Alternative Breaks trip. What he likes most about participating in the program—what keeps him coming back—is the service aspect and the people. “You get a bunch of college kids willing to give up a whole week,” he said. “You get the best people in the college.”
And, there was something more that resonated within this young man who has devoted so much of his life to the soulful creative art of music.
“It’s not just the service aspect,” he said. “We also have a small-group reflection. Action without thought is pretty meaningless.”
Kaitlyn Remian, from Schaumburg, is a junior English teacher education major. She serves on the executive board of Alternative Breaks. This was her fourth trip.
Previously she had gone to Georgia as a freshman to help Habitat for Humanity. As a sophomore, she traveled to Arkansas to work on a state park project. During winter break last January, she painted houses in Salina, Kansas, to aid homeless women who were the victims of domestic violence and addiction. She went on an Alternative Summer Break trip to Kenya this past summer.
“The Alt Breaks program really sold me on ISU,” Remian said. “Education and social change are important to me, and this is a big program that sends lots of students to multiple sites.
“It’s meaningful service, and your impact grows exponentially.”
During this trip, she pulled garbage off the island, including hot-water heaters, car tires, and a barbecue grill attached to a water ski. Despite the long hours of volunteering and feeling exhausted, she appreciated ending her day with a shower, a meal with friends, and reflecting on her service. And, she is grateful for the unexpected friendships she’s gained over the years.
“You sign up for AB, you don’t know anyone, and then you’re like family,” Remian said. “Some of my best friends have come from AB.”
Since Pregracke’s group is called Living Lands & Waters, there is a large component of the work that is done on dryland. For this trip that meant working high atop the steep bluffs that overlook the river. There, students cleared out acres and acres of honeysuckle shrubs.
Honeysuckle is not as sweet as its name sounds. The invasive species outcompetes the native oak and hardwood species for nutrition.
Dan Breidenstein, a project coordinator with LL&W, said the honeysuckle lives the longest in the forest as it is first to turn green in the spring and the last to remain green in late fall. “It’s pretty in the spring, and it produces berries in the fall, which the birds eat. But, then the birds eliminate, and that grows more honeysuckle.”
The students carefully worked around a nearby Native American burial ground. Their tools were simple saws and loppers. They cut the brush and pulled out small stumps or sprayed them so that they wouldn’t re-grow. If the honeysuckle wasn’t cleared, it would expand out like an umbrella and block the sun and prevent native seeds and acorns from growing. Clearing the brush creates a good habitat for birds and small animals.
Here’s why it matters: Currently there is an abundance of 50- and 60-year-old oaks and pin oaks but a scarcity of 10-year-old trees, which concerns Breidenstein. For the week, per LL&W, students removed over 10 acres of invasive bush honeysuckle from the bluffs above Grafton.
The students’ week of hard work ended with an awards luncheon at an open-air restaurant along the river. The barge loaded with the students’ labors was moored just yards away. The event was part comedy skit and part revival meeting. It was cheesy and over the top, but it was also perfect. The awards turned out to be gag gifts made up of trash pulled from the islands.
Coach made a dramatic entrance as “We Are Family” blared from speakers.
“Coach, Coach, Coach,” students chanted boisterously. Coach made a few jokes and wisecracks before turning serious: “I’ve cherished the time I spent with you this week. We started the week as strangers; I consider you all family.”
Pregracke followed, speaking in short, clipped sentences. “Thank you. I wish you all the best of success in life. It’s wonderful country. Make it happen. I hope you all go on to do great things. Do it to it. Thank you.”
He ended with a line that could describe his own life: “We got a lot done.”
Applause echoed from every corner of the room. In a few days another spring would arrive on this ancient and beautiful river and its majestic bluffs.
For more information about Alternative Breaks, visit the program’s page on the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning website.
John Moody can be reached at jemoody2@IllinoisState.edu.