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Stream Team Adventures! Big River Tire Roundup, Operation Clean Stream 8/23/2015

September 9, 2015

Big River Tire Roundup 005It was the weekend of the 48th Annual Operation Clean Stream (Yes, FORTY EIGHT YEARS) put on by the Open Space Council for the St. Louis Region. They are a powerhouse non-profit that organizes a massive cleanup of the Meramec River watershed every August, along with other conservation and restoration projects in the St. Louis area. The main cleanup of the weekend is held on Saturday, spanning the length of this popular river and the tributaries that feed it, with volunteers at multiple sites spending their morning picking up trash and pulling tires out of the mud of miles of riverbank. We were on the Lower Meramec, with our main base of operations at Arnold City Park, working with the Mighty Arnold #211 Stream Team. My crew was cleaning a site near Interstate 55 at the Lower Meramec Trails, in St. Louis County just off of Meramec Bottom Rd. It turned out to be a very successful day for my little handful of enthusiastic volunteers, spending a couple hours filling up the back of a full size truck with green mesh bags of trash, four tires, two plastic 50 gallon drums, two coolers, and a couple other large pieces of debris.

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Arnold City Park, on Saturday. (Picture courtesy the Mighty Arnold Stream Team #211)

It was a Saturday that saw a couple thousand volunteers take to the forests along the Meramec River to improve the health and beauty that it flows through, improving the quality of life for us and our local environment. Thank you to everyone that is involved with this incredible event!

But THIS post is about the the day after…

Early the next day on Sunday morning, we found ourselves in the parking lot of a local bank in the little Missouri town of Irondale. A spot on the map along Highway M in Washington County, Irondale is home to just under 500 people, spread out through the hills to the east of the Big River. The Big River itself is a tributary of the Meramec River, joining its waters south of Eureka, MO, and having the distinct quality of being a northward moving waterway. It starts in Council Bluff Lake, and drains a watershed of 955 square miles along its 145 miles of flow. A good friend of mine kayaked the length of it earlier this year and documented his journey. You should check it out here, at Big River Traverse.

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Rockstars, every one of them!

So after all the invited Stream Teamers arrived that would be floating on about 7 miles of the Big River, we shuttled a few vehicles, and then drove to the access off of Highway U just to the west, and start loading canoes and gear into the water. We ended up with 20 canoes and a kayak, and our mission today was to remove as many tires as we possibly could from this waterway. This river tends to be somewhat ignored by your typical recreational floaters, besides the places closer to Washington State Park and beyond, but it is a special river to those that live within its reach and we planned on showing it some love over the next few hours.

Big River Tire Roundup 043We finally got ready to go, having shuffled some more vehicles back to the center of town, and set off. 21 boats, heading down this narrow and lively river. It wasn’t long before we started to find the remnants of human influence, stopping to remove embedded tires and random pieces of metal and textiles from the gravel bars along the way. It was overcast and cool, but not too frigid, with the sun peeking through minor openings in the clouds now and again to remind us that somewhere on this 75 degree day it was actually still August in Missouri.

Big River Tire Roundup 056We made our way downriver, spreading out as we each stopped along the bank to gather whatever debris we spied, or to float above the pools that hid moss covered tires in their depths, dropping a hook to grab it or jumping straight into the water to pull it from the mud and put it into a canoe. We even came across a couple tractor tires and worked as a group to get them up and out, these giant abandoned behemoths of rubber and steel, sleeping away their days in a place they don’t really belong.

Big River Tire Roundup 063After a few hours and a few miles we were working our way to capacity, tires and metal mounding up in unique piles within the gunwales of our boats, so we stopped for lunch on a gravel bar just across the river from some low lying bluffs where the water has been carving its elbow into the rock face for possibly centuries already. With elderly cedars clinging to the ledges, and pools below them likely filled with boulders and mammoth fish, these cracked and weathered bluffs are surely a testament to the power and importance of the water, and to the relationship of the natural materials that make up everything around us. For just a short while, we were witness to a place that is rarely seen by that many people, and I think there is a sacredness in that. The rivers and forests unseen is one of my favorite motivators to go into the outdoors of Missouri. The natural world along the river down in the woods, surrounding this gravel bar that we happened to decide to have a picnic on during this cleanup float, reminds us all in our shared moment of beauty the reason why we are here and what we are here to do.

Big River Tire Roundup 078So we finish lunch and we carry on, looking still for the things that don’t belong so that we can take them with us from this river to put it back to how it should look. We finally get to a low water bridge probably about 5 miles from where we started, unloaded all our tires and trash, and portaged our watercraft to the far edge on the other side of the road. With the canoes emptied we started out again, after a couple pictures of our pile of treasure and the worn but satisfied faces that collected it. The pile would be removed and taken to where everything can be properly disposed of in the next few days, so we carried on down the river with our now empty boats, searching for more bounty.

Big River Tire Roundup 130With just a couple miles left, we found a few more tires and pieces of trash, collecting what we could as we neared our take-out spot. Coming closer to Washington County 511, way ahead of us after a wide turn in the river, we stopped paddling for the most part, drifting slowly toward the end. It is late in the day, near 5 pm and at least 7 hours since we got on the water, but we find ourselves wanting to absorb as much of the beauty of this place before our journey is over and we are heading back to the asphalt and buildings and congestion of the city. Here there is subtle movement of all things, swaying and flowing in the direction of the breeze and whichever way is downstream, and there is a quiet that can’t be found in more populated places. This last short stretch of river is burned into our memories so that we can hear the peace that it holds, and remember the natural wealth of energy it inspires, during the days and weeks until we get to visit again.

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My son, Eli, the canoe pilot!

All in all we removed over 150 tires and a ton of random debris from about 7 miles of the Big River, between 20 canoes and a kayak. 20 canoes and a kayak piloted by some of the best people I have ever met, including my own son, who at 14 years old and full of independence, rode by himself in his own canoe the entire length of the float, filling it as he traveled with tires and trash and proclaiming his spot among these great river rats that we are lucky enough to get to spend occasional weekends with. Thank you to all the Stream Teamers that were a part of this great trip, including Kallan from Planned Spontaneity, a hiking blog that YOU should definitely check out! I can’t wait until the next one!

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Me, on Saturday, along the Meramec River.

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One Comment
  1. Well said 🙂

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