Sunday, October 22, 2006

Starting at home

It had been 584 miles since we started this trash-mapping journey. This time, we got to take off from our home base…Cooper’s Landing at the historic Port of Nashville!

Yesterday was not a day of resting up for the trip, thoughtfully packing gear or anything like that. The day before was the first ever (and maybe the last according to some cold, wet souls) “Great Flying Carp Canoe Clean-up” thrown by the River Ladies Auxiliary (RLA), a homegrown bunch of trash-cleaning river-lovers that know how to have a good time.

We put 14 canoes and kayaks out on the river to clean up 10 miles of the Missouri, from Katfish Katy’s at Huntsdale to Cooper’s Landing downstream. It was a day of extreme mud-slogging and tire-rolling followed by an afternoon of cold rain followed by a soggy trash sort and clean-up of the clean-up. I won’t go into it too much here, but everybody involved was truly impressed by everyone else’s heroic feats. Extreme clean-up!

So seeing the crew arrive at Cooper’s Sunday morning ready for action was pretty inspiring…

We loaded the boats up with gear and hunkered down for a speedy trip through Southern Boone County. I saw the bluffs at my home zip by, and we were off to meet up with our camera crew at Noren Landing in Jefferson City. Our first 35 miles were a cold, autumn colored blur (punctuated by stops to put on more layers). We weren’t starting our mapping until mile 135 so we could get to Hermann by nightfall

Movie stars?

At Noren Landing, we picked up Tom Newcomb of Technosonic Studios and the sound crew. Tom has joined us several times on the trip. He’s filming a short piece on the MegaScout for “Missouri Outdoors”.

Scouting with a camera crew is always a little different experience. This time, Dan was wired up, and occasionally we'd crack a joke, forgetting that he was miked until the sound guy would chuckle in the bow of the Saskia.

Usually, we'll swing the boat around to get a closer shot of a refrigerator or trash pile, but with a camera crew, you sometimes come back for a better angle of the maple-covered bluffsides ignited with a spot of sunshine.

As we approached the mouth of the Osage River, we were looking at shores that we had cleaned back in May during our first Bonnots Mill clean-up. At that time, river levels were pretty high... now they were in the midst of a daily drop as the navigation season ended. Coves we had boated into before were now high and dry...a couple-minute walk from anywhere we could land now. With the lower water, we could see large deposits of trash on banks that were underwater in May.

We thought about cruising up the Osage to stop by our friend Soda Popp's place across from Bonnots Mill, but Hermann was calling our name and the day was getting late...

Pay attention to the river, dummy

As we approached the Hermann bridge, I pulled in close to shore, checking out under the bridge for the usual scrap metal and party debris when I heard the clattering sound of gravel and sand on the prop. I looked up to see Tim and Gary Leabman at the ramp. In between us and them was an emerging sandbar blocking the way.

I shut the motor off and we found ourselves stuck in sand, just a couple hundred feet from the trailer waiting to haul our boat up the hill to the Spirit Hill Guest House.


Melanie hopped out to give us a push, and pretty soon Dan, Mel and I were all slogging thigh deep through the chilly water, pushing the Saskia into a narrow band of deeper water near shore. Moods darkened and the first signs of hypothermia crept in as we trailered the boat, hopped in the van and headed up the hill.

The Angels of Spirit Hill

On all the river journeys that River Relief takes, there are angels around each bend, giving us just the advice or help we need. Old farmers with a stack of aged Osage Orange for the fire ("Fire Angels"). A river rat with advice on the best campsite around ("River Angels"). The wonderful friends that keep our bellies full at clean-ups and send us on scouting trips with boxes full of homemade baked goods ("Food Angels").

And on the MegaScout, there are the "Ramp Angels"...people that emerge from the world above the banks to bring just what we need just when we need it. People like John Brady, wading in the river up to his waist at Indian Cave State Park to bend our props back into shape. The Columbia USGS crew who spent the evening on our sandbar and then let us spend the morning in their hotel room in Blair, NE, for showers and wireless internet. Racin' Dave and Sue, waiting for us at Franklin Island to pull out our boats just minutes before the rain started.

In Hermann, our ramp angels came from Spirit Hill, the old German cemetery up on a bluff above the river. Gary Leabman and his wife Marcia own a beautiful guest house above the cemetery. Gardens spill down the hill behind the house, framed by blazing autumn maples and the sun setting over the hazy river valley.

Gary had heard about our journey this summer from Mike Cooper, and offered to house us for a night when we came through Hermann. A night of civilization when temps were supposed to drop well into the twenties was impossible to turn down.

Our drenched coveralls went in the dryer and Gary propped our soggy mudboots up in front of a fan to dry. The smell of fresh baked brownies filled the warm home, and hot showers felt like impossible gifts from the river gods. As we stood on their back porch, the largest raft of white pelicans I'd ever seen floated above us, in their graceful sychronized river of white and black.

The night was full of stories from the river and from back in Boone and Moniteau Counties (where Gary used to live). The world series played all night on the tube.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Still basking in the good vibes (and bodily exhaustion) of Saturday’s clean-up in Sugar Creek, MO, (at La Benite Park) our MegaScout crew hit the river once again on Sunday morning. We motored downstream at full throttle to get down to where we left off mapping this summer (the infamous river mile 333 – ‘halfway to hell’).

Fairly soon, a strange sign caught our eye –

“Free Mud Rubs”

Of course, we immediately knew where we were …good ol’ Alligator Cove, with Capt. John Breyfogle hailing us from his kayak. We stopped by for hugs from John, Janie, Stew and Bethany, and quickly hit the river again, preparing to start our mapping again.

With the sun above and the fall breeze in our faces, we were home on the river again. Anyone sitting on the banks may have wondered why these goofballs in their jon boats were whooping like coyotes.

One thing we obviously noticed as we prepared for the Oct. 7 La Benite clean-up was that much of the plastic debris we saw just above the waterline this summer had since been swept away. The seasonal flush of the river had changed the visual picture of the river, but we found that our general rating system still made sense. The general patterns of trash distribution seemed to hold true even as river levels changed.

Passing the miles that we cleaned up on Saturday was incredibly fulfilling, until we saw a few spots that we weren’t able to get crews to. This river-cleaning business requires an unbelievable optimism and a faith in the future responsibility of river lovers everywhere.

We came across another sign of the ephemeral and well-travelled nature of river trash just before we got to the Baltimore Bend National Wildlife Refuge. Almost 100 miles downstream from the last place we saw it (just above Leavenworth, KS), we found a hotwater heater floating amongst some driftwood. Spraypainted on the side was “400.8- 7/06-MRR”. It’s an appliance we saw on our summer leg of the MegaScout – our first found “tagged” item of the trip! (Back in Atchison, we found three refrigerators we had tagged – at La Benite we found a tagged bathtub).

Sunday night was spent upstream from Waverly. We built a campfire along the riprap with some of us sleeping alongside it. Others crashed up on the bank amongst the trees, with possums crashing around in the undergrowth like bears and herons squawking above under the almost full moon.