Monday, July 18, 2011

Project AWARE: A Watershed Awareness River Expedition

I participated in Project AWARE again this year, my eighth year for the nine-year history of the week-long event.  In addition to participating with my wife Peg in paddling a canoe down the river to pick up trash, I offered guided nature walks in the evening to acquaint folks with the flora, fauna, and places we encountered along the way.  Many educational programs are integrated into the AWARE experience, but it is best known for its tremendous success in cleaning rivers of unsightly and unnatural accumulations of trash ranging from scattered bits of plastic to large deposits of rusty metal.

Something lies beneath...
Groping for the bottom edge
Tug of war with embedded junk
A typical day begins with paddling away from the launch site while scanning the shoreline for any unnatural objects.  Sometimes they are obvious as heaps of junk on the banks but often their presence is revealed only by glimpses of submerged shapes.  Spotting junk triggers a quick turnaround of the canoe, wading into the flowing water to evaluate the size of the job, and - if large - beckoning additional paddlers to the challenge.  A team of people quickly materializes and sets to working probing, prodding, pulling, and pushing the junk whose years-long second career of obstructing the riverbed is about to end.  After a flurry of idea-hatching, the group settles on a plan and gets to work.

Loading big junk onto "canoemarans" for paddling to take-out point...
no trash (well, almost no trash) is too big...
...or too small!
Shovels, ropes, helpful hands and strong backs soon extricate the junk from the river.  It is then loaded onto a fleet of waiting canoes, each accepting their share of the bounty and then whisking away toward a downstream drop-off point.  Some pieces of junk are far too large for a single canoe, but this problem is resolved by lashing two canoes together to form a primitive, but incredibly stable catamaran that is guided downstream by its foursome paddlers.

Part of one day's haul

At the drop-off points, offloaded junk quickly grows to enormous piles sorted by material.  Tires here, metal there, with still other subsets for cans, bottles, plastic, and miscellaneous others.  A goal of Project AWARE is not simply to remove junk from the river for re-deposit in a landfill, but to reclaim and recycle as much of the material as possible. 

After finishing a day of paddling and trash-removing, volunteers camp overnight along the river; this year, camping was provided by the Fayette County Conservation Board at Gouldsburg Park and Gilbertson Park, by the City of Elkader at its municipal park, and by the Clayton County Conservation Board at Motor Mill Park and Osborne Park.  Camaraderie developed during the day and from previous years extends into the campground.  It's like sharing a giant campsite with a hundred of your closest friends!

Reminders that we are moving through a natural habitat abound.  Deer, muskrats, eagles, kingfishers, herons, sandpipers, waxwings, fish, mussels, crayfish, dobsonflies, cottonwoods, boxelders, and sedges are among the most obvious.  Many others are bypassed, unrecognized or unseen by the busy paddlers, but that is one of the functions of my evening nature walks: helping eager volunteers learn more about the natural world through which we are passing.

While scouting sites for my evening nature walks one day this week, I discovered a small population of Glade Mallow (Napaea dioica), a state-listed "Species of Special Concern" that inhabits riparian areas in northeast Iowa.

Glade Mallow

We also met organisms from the distant past: trilobites, cephalopods, and corals weathered out of 375 million-year old Ordovician rocks bordering the river.  Dr. Kata McCarville of Upper Iowa University provided morning orientations about the rocks and fossils we would encounter on each day's upcoming float, prompting us to watch for them as we plucked trash from sandbars, bluffs, and riverbanks.   I was fortunate to find a beautiful trilobite fossil as I went ashore for a lunch break on a gravel bar.

Trilobite preserved in Ordovician mudstone, found on gravel bar.

Thanks to geologist Brian Witzke for identfying this as
Anataphrus vigilans from the Elgin Member of the Maquoketa Formation

At the end of the week, Project AWARE had lived up to its name, raising awareness of the beauty and biodiversity of the river, both among participants and observers who watched from bridges, backyards, and boat landings or who saw its story told in newspapers and on televisions.   Along the way, its 400 volunteers removed over 600 tires and over 30 tons of junk, letting the water flow over a more completely natural riverbed once again.  Future paddlers will glide over a river that is now a bit wilder and more scenic; the river and its wildlife will be appreciated more widely by a public more aware of its values.