Iowa does not have large blocks of wilderness, but it does have long, narrow strips of wild land along its many rivers. Scenic countryside, outdoor recreation, and biological diversity are packed into these skinny riparian corridors. In our agriculturally dominated state, no other landscape setting retains so much of its natural character or enables expeditions measurable in dozens of days or multitudes of miles. In our tamed and tilled landscape, rivers are our last big bastions of wildness, biodiversity, and outdoor adventure.
Exploring and restoring the wild beauty of Iowa's rivers is what draws hundreds of volunteers - including many returnees from previous efforts - to Project AWARE each year. This year we paddled 90 miles of the Iowa River between Dows and Marshalltown, plucking a record-breaking 1400 tires and 60 tons of metal and plastic junk from its bed and banks.
Drought conditions this summer meant that streamflow was low, exposing "rock gardens" of glacial boulders in many places in the river. But even where large rocks were absent, our canoes often grounded on shoals. On the first day, our false expectation that deeper water was only a short distance in front of us led us to "pole" the canoes with our paddles like gondoliers, but we soon realized that that gut-wrenching technique was more exhausting than simply stepping out of the boat and dragging it to the next pool.
Riverbanks were everywhere bursting with purple monkeyflowers, more than I have ever seen. Tumbling from their parent plants, senescent blossums accumulated on the shoreline and floated in flotillas on the river.
For the first two days (from Dows to Iowa Falls), we paddled, poled, and dragged our canoes through a muddy stream draining the flat, farmed surface of the ground moraine left by the last glacier. Through swampy forests of silver maple flanking its winding course, we glimpsed views of row-cropped fields extending to distant horizons.
But on the following three days (Iowa Falls to Eldora), we paddled, poled, and dragged our canoes on a clear stream through a deepening valley tightly flanked by bedrock walls capped with steep upland woods of oak, hickory, maple, and basswood. With its upstream load of sediment trapped behind the dam at Iowa Falls and protected from new sources of sedimentation by rocky, forested slopes, the water in the river was remarkably clear - clear enough to see its sandy and gravelly bottom, clear enough to see our feet as we stumbled in search of junk and deep water, clear enough to spot subtle black arcs of submerged and half-buried tires, clear enough to watch fish dart to unchurned water and mussels slowly carve trails in golden sand. Clear enough to raise our hope that clear water is even possible in our soil-shedding state.
Everywhere along the river - in water muddy or clear, on beds of sand, silt or rock, along shorelines vertical or flat, beneath forests of silver maple or oak, on days sunny or rainy - the perennially cheerful army of AWARE volunteers plucked plastic, manhandled metal, and tugged tires from the river...
sometimes in small groups...,
and sometimes in very large groups!
In all cases, the junk was loaded onto canoes pressed into service as barges and carried downstream to established drop-off points.
Sometimes the junk was not "junk" at all, but historical relicts. One morning we discovered a horse-drawn plow buried in the mud of a silty backwater and donated it to the Hardin County Historical Society that evening.
River restoration and outdoor recreation in an environment of camaraderie, discovery, and education is the chemistry of Project AWARE. Coordinator Brian Soenen summed it up for everyone: "Sometime between breakfast, getting out on the river - getting extremely dirty - and another exhausting day, the magic happens ...Looking back at what you've done, feeling the pain from all the work... people internalize that. There's something about it that gets in your blood and keeps you coming back."
The effect of Project AWARE river clean-ups extends beyond the riverbanks in the form of motivation, education, and experience carried by participants into the larger world. At the moment, AWARE volunteers cannot remove the silt, nutrients, and bacteria that presently bedevil our streams (although there is no doubt in my mind that they would remove it all by hand if they could), but they will be vigilant for solutions, now and in the future.