Cleaning Up the Rivers of America
Life on a two lane road is an unpredictable adventure. We can plan a trip down to the last detail, but there’s no anticipating who we’ll meet along the way or how the road will bend and turn as we go. Not to mention the possibility of running out of gas or cash, or needing to call upon the saving grace of a tow. Something the crew of Living Lands & Waters is hoping for right now.
Why are these people living on a trash barge?
“We are currently floating near St. Louis waiting for cargo barge to cruise by to tow us up the river!” exclaims Chad Pregracke, the founder of Living Lands & Waters, the largest river cleanup project in America. “We are hitchhikers with a big backpack.”
The backpack he is referencing is his fleet of five barges, two towboats, six workboats, two skid steers, and an excavator, all of which carry Chad and his crew of 13 2,300 miles up and down the Mississippi River, year-round, where they clean up the litter inside and around the Big Muddy. Something Chad has been doing since he was 15 years old.
“I grew up in East Moline, Illinois, spending summers as a commercial mussel diver with my brother. Diving the mighty river, I was surrounded by sand-covered oil drums, tires, refrigerators, and other garbage that littered its floor. Once I realized I was swimming in the garbage, I decided to rewrite the river’s reputation, and do it alone if I had to.”
Incredibly, he has never needed to. Chad’s one-man mission started a conversation that spread across the country and now includes the helping hands of more than 100,000 volunteers who have donned gloves and boots and joined him on the riverbanks.
“Before paved roads and railroads, goods and people arrived by boat,” explains Chad. “America’s waterways were and are still major transportation hubs building and propelling the country forward. With more than 17,000 miles of rivers weaving across America, every mile of water is worth protecting.”
When the crew isn’t busy organizing one of their thousands of river cleanups, they’re on board their 310-foot floating home. Let’s climb on board and show you around!
Built in 2011 in Kentucky, the solar-powered house barge has two bathrooms, seven bedrooms, two offices, a galley, a full basement, a classroom, and a 31,000-gallon water tank.
“More than 18 million people a day drink the Mississippi River water, ” shares Chad, “so we make sure that while we’re spending this much time trying to clean up the river, we aren’t inadvertently adding to the problem. Onboard, you’ll see we’ve done a great job of recycling and reusing salvaged bits and pieces to build our home.”
There’s a cozy, silly, nature theme present throughout the vessel from the warm wooden floors and walls to the four dog dishes in the kitchen!) Photos of past river cleanups form an orderly line around the classroom walls passing under the large cattle horns that hold a very snazzy pair of white leather shoes. Above you, a fierce snapping turtle hangs over the kitchen table, ready to clean your plate for you when you’re done.
The entire barge is a Frankenstein boat with a support structure assembled from a flooded strip club, reclaimed barn tin and wood, recycled license plate awnings, reclaimed rebar, and old bridge girders. Along with the creative use of former river garbage, the barge design includes sustainable materials like the bamboo flooring covering the bathrooms, hallways, and classroom, the eco-friendly concrete countertops throughout, and Energy Star® appliances to handle preparation and clean-up of the most common shipboard meal — frozen pizzas.
“Life on board is fun and exciting,” proclaims Chad. “We have this amazing job that allows us to have a quick commute and lets us work outside at a job that produces immediate results. We love coming together at the end of the day around the kitchen table and talking about the people we met that day or strange things we pulled out of the water and then quickly jump back into our Netflix shows and card games. It’s all about keeping it chill on our unconventional setup.”
The best part of the house barge is the classroom. Complete with chairs, desks, and a projector, the onboard teachers Megan Elgan and Michael Coyne-Logan have taught more than 10,000 students about river ecosystems and ecology restoration. (Michael actually quit his job as an 8th-grade history teacher and swapped a traditional classroom setting for a floating one. He has been on board for the last 10 years!)
“Getting the river clean and keeping it clean are two different things,” explains Chad. “We have to explain this to folks and remind them that their work is not done in a day. It takes a piece at a time, which is how the river got polluted in the first place. Michael and Meghan are education rock stars, teaching this to everyone – young and old – onboard.”
The crew comes from all sorts of different backgrounds— professional disc golfers, college grads, former dental hygienists, handymen, bakers, etc. When united they form the ultimate river cleanup machine, but it never feels like work.
“It’s like living on a cruise ship,” says Chad. “When the boat docks, we jump off and go explore the mainland. We take the time to explore the green spaces and the downtowns, to pick up dog food and toilet paper, to organize local citizens for a river cleanup, and then return to the boat when it’s time to move along to the next port.”
If these folks sound like your kind of company, there are a few ways you can help them reach their goal of recycling one million pounds by the end of 2017.
How can you join the crew?
Show up!” exclaims Chad. “We keep things light during river cleanups with skits, contests for the strangest thing pulled out of the water, karaoke, loud music, motivational speeches… it’s incredibly entertaining.”
Chad and his crew aren’t just sticking to the Mississippi. Living Lands & Waters has cleaned up 23 rivers in 20 states and they are always looking for volunteers along the way. Everyone from churches, businesses, families, and students looking for an alternative spring break option for next year is encouraged to sign up. More than 100,000 volunteers have helped pull bowling balls, evidence from robberies, sunken boats, and school bus roofs from the water. But there is always a need for more hands, and all ages are welcome!
“The communities we’ve visited and worked with have done a great job of keeping their section clean long after we’ve gone,” explains Chad. “Because of that, we don’t even have to visit the same place twice, and that makes it easy to expand our outreach, share our passion, and educate new people every day. We promise you a good time out there while doing a good deed for the environment.”
Get involved with Living Lands & Waters and follow them on Facebook to find out when Chad and the gang will be floating by your town!
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18 thoughts on “The Hitchhikers of the Mississippi: Life on a Trash Barge”
Great article about something we don’t often think about. I’d love to join this crew. They seem to love the work they do. Thanks for sharing Mike.
Thank you! And there are SO many ways to get involved. Check it out, Mindy- http://livinglandsandwaters.org/donate/
GREAT job you guys, and THANK YOU. Once a year they have been having the great American clean up, we get out kids and grand kids involved in it, We call our selves the Prairie road pickers. Also once a week I drive my lawn tractor and wagon a mile up our road in each direction to pick up trash that people through out.
Brilliant, piece of work, wish there was more folk, like you in the world.
Keep up the good work, hoping to visit the USA, again one day and would be great if we could join in
All the best
As a teenager growing up during the 60’s and 70’s I remember the massive push the cleanup the trash along the roadways. What I see is that those lessons are being forgotten. Wife and I make it a practice to take a bag to pick up trash when ever we go walking.A little effort by everyone would go along way.
What an awesome thing all of you are doing. Thank you. Sure would be wonderful if someone did this for our oceans.
How do you make your money? and do you take donations to help you?
I am too old to help but donations might help you.
To all of you doing this clean up, you are awesome. You need to be promoted more !
IS THERE A CLEAN UP CREW/BOAT ON THE OHIO RIVER? I LEARNED TO SWIM IN IT, I WATCHED THE FIRST MAN LAND ON THE MOON ON AN OLD WOODEN HOUSE BOAT ON THE RIVER WHEN I WAS LITTLE. I WOULD LOVE TO VOLUNTEER FOR A MONTH OR TWO ON A BOAT IF THERE IS ONE. IF NOT HOW DO I START ONE, I COULD LIVE THE REST OF MY LIFE CLEANING UP THE OHIO RIVER. IT IS THE PLACE SOME OF MY FONDEST MEMORIES COME FROM. SO IF ANYONE HAS ANY INFO PLEASE EMAIL ME AT firstname.lastname@example.org.
THANKS SO MUCH
Bryan– They have organized some cleanups on the Ohio River before! They go where they are needed. 🙂 Love your enthusiasm!
What a very cool thing Mike! I feel like I know these people, love what there doing for this World, animals, humans, etc… very cool.
Great job guys and keep up the good work. The whole crew should be very proud of themselves. Again ATTA-A-BOY Awards to you all.
I live in Edmonton Alberta Canada. I join our river valley cleanup annually. We clean up the river valley and have removed thousands of tons of garbage over the years. Cars. Tires. Bikes. Everything. There has been a huge reduction in the amount of waste we now find. Its because the meat of the operation was done over the first few years the clean up took place. The majority of the waste now is from hobocamps. Its a huge issue. Homelessness is a societal issue that will never go away. It impacts a wide variety of areas. Including waste. I feel my volunteer contribution has value. I go back every year. I enjoy our FT Saskatchewan River. Canoeing. Walking the river bank. Going swimming. I am glad that their are other who feel that our water systems are important. Thanks for this story.
What a very cool thing! Keep up the good work!
I read this article a week or so ago and keep coming back to it. Rubbish in the UK is a huge problem – open the car window and out it goes. My mission, in a very small way, is to pick up on the street. However, this sounds like a USA trip is called for. I won’t forget that this opportunity is out there. WHAT A GREAT JOB you are all doing. I salute you!
I’ve read Chad’s book. It was well worth the read!
Hi Guys, love your dedication and desire to make the world better and cleaner. You should be very proud of what you are doing and have already done. I sure as Hell am proud of you!!!!!!!
I would love to send you guys a donation to help you out and also read Chad’s book. What is the name of the book?? And let kme know where to send you guys some beer and coffee money.
Thank you so much.
I’ve also read Chad’s book and I concur…great book! So thankful people like Chad are committed to causes such as cleaning up America’s beautiful rivers.
Thank you for all that you are doing. I have family in that area. Marleen