Caretaker of the Mississippi River basin carriers educational message
By Tony Graf firstname.lastname@example.org October 23, 2012 8:52PM
Updated: November 25, 2012 11:24AM
CHANNAHON — Chad Pregracke is a cross between Mark Twain and Bruce Springsteen.
On the Twain side of the River, he’s humorous, entertaining and full of knowledge about the Mighty Mississippi. On the Springsteen side of the River, he’s energetic, commanding and always showing off his biceps.
Or at least bragging about his biceps.
In 1997, Pregracke founded Living Lands & Waters. He and his group navigate the Mississippi River and its major tributaries — on a continuing mission to clean up a great American waterway. They recruit local volunteers, and together they remove tires, signs and all kinds of bizarre junk from the water.
His fleet boat and barges were recently on the Des Plaines River in Channahon, preparing for a cleanup effort with volunteers. One of the barges is a “floating classroom,” where the group holds fun and educational discussions with high school students.
“Growing up on the river, I saw thousands of barrels, thousands of tires, all the cars — everything dumped in the river,” Pregracke said. “I got sick of seeing it. I wanted to do something about it.”
Pregracke can only be serious for a few minutes before doing some serious hamming. When he noticed a photographer snapping away, he interrupted his speech and assumed the Thinking Man’s pose. Then he started flexing his muscles for the camera, as the crowd of students erupted in laughter.
So how did Pregracke build up those he-man biceps? In 15 years, Living Lands & Waters has done more than 600 community cleanups in 100 different towns in 18 states on 17 rivers, Pregracke said. The group has involved more than 70,000 volunteers in those cleanups.
The program also is educational: It has involved more than 1,700 teachers in workshops. And now sessions for students are available, teaching about river biology, history, navigation and careers. In all, 700 students have attended so far.
And Pregracke gets these students psyched up. Only a few minutes into his presentation last week, he got a chant going in the audience: “You know what we’re going to do today? We’re going to learn, learn, learn ...”
“Learn! Learn! Learn!” the students shouted back, some thumping on tables, but none being able to rock the sturdy barge.
More than 50 students from Riverside-Brookfield High School attended the session on Oct. 16. The students rode buses to Big Basin Marina in Channahon, and then boarded four plate boats. The 30-foot-long boats took them under the Interstate 55 bridge and then eastward on the river, all the way to the docking site for Pregracke’s fleet boat and barges.
As the students were transported to the docking site, each boat had buzzwords that served as cues for student cheers.
It was not exactly Jolliet and Marquette singing “Alouette” in a birchbark canoe, but it did bring to mind a Chuck Norris joke:
What makes a river flow? Fish doing the wave for Chad Pregracke.
Then the students boarded the floating classroom complex on the river. Pregracke’s fleet boat is the River Cleanup II, out of East Moline, his hometown. The boat has extensive artwork on its sides, with one side showing a map of the Mississippi River from Minneapolis to New Orleans. Another side shows fish and other aquatic life in the river; corn and soybean farms in the watershed; and a large city that benefits from the river and its agricultural surroundings. Another side of the boat has images of herons and ducks. Graffiti artists in St. Louis painted the images for Pregracke.
The River Cleanup II fleet boat pushes four barges — including the barge Teamwork, where crew members live in dorm rooms during waterway journeys. This barge also has a large living room that doubles as a classroom for students.
Teamwork — built last year by union carpenters from St. Louis to St. Paul — has a rustic cabin atmosphere that makes visits enjoyable.
“We tried to build our barge out of as many recycled materials as possible, so a lot of what you see in here is pretty environmentally friendly. All of the flooring and the cabinetry, they’re all recycled barn oak,” said Jaymie Schuldt, a crew member of Living Lands & Waters, describing one room.
Rooftop solar panels provide power for electricity on the barge.
The River Cleanup II boat also pushes two 130-foot-long barges that carry garbage from cleanup efforts. One of those barges is specifically for scrap and tires, and it carried large tire piles last week.
A fourth barge, 90 feet long, is a crane barge for unloading garbage from cleanups.
The Teamwork barge is a museum of junk collectibles pulled from the rivers: stop signs; gas station signs; a soda advertisement; a yellow diamond-shaped sign reading, “Road ends in water”; and a sign reading “Country Ham Festival,” with a picture of a pig being carried by balloons.
Pregracke has what he calls the world’s largest message-in-a-bottle collection. He’s recovered 63 of them, and some have traveled hundreds of miles.
Someone threw a bottle that floated in the Chicago River, then the Des Plaines River, through the locks and canals. Pregracke found the bottle in the Illinois River at Spring Valley, in central Illinois.
Life on the river
In the classroom on the barge, Pregracke started off the presentation with dance music. Building up tension in the audience, he stood with his back to the crowd — the right side of his body in sync with the music, the left side keeping cool.
Just as the music reached a peak, he turned it off: “Just kidding. We don’t have a dance routine.”
The tension broke like ice on a logging river. Laughter erupted in the audience.
Pregracke got serious and discussed the origin of Living Lands & Waters. He was only 17 years old when he got the idea to start cleaning up the river. He had worked as a shell diver for commercial fishermen, and he also had worked on towboats running from Peoria up into Will County.
Through all these years of cleanups, he has navigated from Minnesota to Louisiana on the Big River, and has gone far on the big tributaries: Kansas City on the Missouri River, and Louisville, Ky., on the Ohio River.
He also has made his share of trips up here, on the Illinois and Des Plaines rivers. After last week’s cleanup and presentation in Channahon, the crew was to visit Morris, along the Illinois River. Then it was on to Seneca, Utica, Hennepin, Lacon, Peoria, Pekin, Havana, Beardstown, Meredosia and Grafton.
Pregracke has gained support from key sponsors: Caterpillar, Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, Cargo Carriers and AEP River Operations. All of these companies are $100,000-plus contributors who keep the River Cleanup II running strong.
ADM did a career presentation for students at the Channahon stop. Afterward, Ellis Kell did a Mississippi River blues performance. Kell is with the River Music Experience out of Davenport, Iowa.
After the presentation, Pregracke climbed a spiral staircase and stood on the second-story barge deck. A breeze blew across the Des Plaines River. The valley behind him had trees of bronze- and rust-colored leaves on a fall day.
That is where rust belongs — in the color of the leaves, and not in the river.