For a week in July, myself, and our Assistant Director—Laura, went on a river-cleaning trip with Project AWARE, or A Watershed Awareness River Expedition designed to bring folks together in a community for a week each summer to canoe (or kayak) a segment of one of Iowa’s rivers to clean up trash out of the river; and as importantly, to learn about Iowa’s river watersheds by fully immersing them into experiencing a wonderful adventure of water, beauty, wildlife, geology, history, and culture! This year’s focus was on the Maquoketa River covering approximately 63 miles from Manchester to Baldwin. For Laura, it was her second straight year, but Shawn’s first. Both were truly amazed, and inspired enough to pick up trash almost everywhere they go now, especially on their weekend adventures canoeing and exploring Iowa’s state and county parks!
The first night we learned some of the basics of whitewater kayaking in the Manchester swimming pool, and then volunteers gathered to learn why people keep returning year after year and are so inspired! The next day, after wrestling garbage from more than five miles of the river (including finding tires, a case of gear oil, metal roofing sheets, and lots of Styrofoam plus filling buckets full of glass shards, metal, and plastic beverage containers), we were able to enjoy tubing down Manchester’s Whitewater Park (https://www.manchester-ia.org/whitewater-park/), and some folks continued to work on their whitewater kayaking skills. The next day we canoed below the Lake Delhi Dam where everyone worked hard to try and recover large amounts of heavy debris from the Lake Delhi Dam breach from 2010. That night we camped within the historical campus of Lenox College, in Hopkinton. The remainder of the week we continued to canoe and experience the adventure of working together to come up with creative ways to wrestle large pieces of trash out of the river, as well as climb logjams to recover Styrofoam, plastic, and highly “prized” fishing bobbers, as well as other tackle. This led us through the beautiful landscape of rock outcrops of Pictured Rocks, and eventually down to the Royertown Access near Baldwin, in Jackson County. We also often enjoyed stopping on gravel or sand bars to look for trash and other treasures, since, as an artist, Laura likes to look for “trash to treasure” litter items, as well as shells and driftwood to create mobiles; and as naturalists, we both enjoy general rock hounding and looking for fossils, plants, and critters as well.
A total of 397 volunteers, ranging in ages as young as three up to 76, took part in the action of cleaning up a river, benefitting not only the local communities and wildlife that utilize that section of the river, but also the wildlife and communities downstream! And the locals did thank us, and quite a few helped in various ways! As I learned at the beginning of the week listening to everyone’s testimonials, people really enjoy coming together in this community, and volunteers come from throughout Iowa and surrounding states. Also, as a newbie to the project, I was really impressed with each evening’s educational programming, all pertaining to different learning experiences ranging from learning about mussels and other wildlife to natural history, the surrounding soils and geology, and local and archeological history. There was also art (nature creations), recreation (atlatl throwing), and music (what a treat). The community of these volunteers sharing the common goal of helping other humans and the local environment all add to the value of the experience. It’s hard to focus in on highlights, but sharing and working together as a community was huge! I also enjoyed just watching people have fun in nature—often you would see kids just floating down the river in their lifejacket with a parent or guardian close by. I would recommend everyone go check out the Whitewater Park in Manchester, historic Lenox College in Hopkinton, Eden Valley Park where you can experience a pretty cool swinging bridge, and definitely go see Pictured Rocks Park! Lastly, as an Iowan who grew up in rural northwest Iowa, I’ll never forget getting woke up at the crack of dawn from a mother cow bellowing one of the longest “moooos” I’ve ever heard! She didn’t seem to like that a tent city had arrived next to her pasture, and with our tent being closest to her, she definitely wasn’t shy letting everyone know!
So Laura and I took a working vacation to partake in this adventure. I try to make it sound like a fun, educational, and enjoyable adventure because to us, and I think for most of the other participants, it truly was! If you choose to participate, you will get dirty, perhaps even get into some poison ivy, bitten by mosquitos and other insects, and even sunburned if you’re not careful. (I sunburned my lower lip!) We do this because this is what we at the raptor center, and I’m sure others who participate in Project AWARE choose to do on a pretty regular basis. Plastic debris and other trash that we find in our parking lots can eventually get to our waterways, and even to our oceans! Not only is the trash unsightly, but plastics and other trash have been documented to negatively affect millions of birds, fish, and other wildlife by not only getting them entrapped, but also when they ingest them, either by accident or on purpose. We also do this because it shares our internal values of who we are as humans. Every day we should ask ourselves as decent caring human beings questions like– what type of human are we, are you? Are we the type of people who over consumes and don’t have a problem with garbage in our back yards? Do we have the courage to pick up trash, or support legislation that reduces our plastic and Styrofoam waste stream?
In bringing this experience back to the Iowa Raptor Project, as a conservation biologist for nearly 20 years, I have seen the recovery of Bald Eagles, Peregrine Falcons, and other raptors, and I feel very lucky to have been a part of this recovery in various ways. I’ve even been lucky enough to see federally threatened Polar Bears, while working with federally threatened Steller’s Eiders in Alaska. I’m happy and grateful for the people and leadership foresight to develop ways, including legislation, to help save species, the environment, and to truly make the world better. And we at the Iowa Raptor Project will continue to work to do so!
If interested in Project AWARE, visit their website.
A marine Project Aware for SCUBA divers, click here.
A website on plastics, and introduce you to their negative effects, click here.
A great TED Talk on intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation, click here.