It is about 8 a.m. on a warming Saturday morning. The sun has just recently risen, and is shining through the framework of the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge in North St. Louis County, casting long geometrical shadows across the western bank of the great Mississippi River.
We are just below the confluence where the Missouri River adds its vast gallons to the flow, and you would be hard pressed to find a greater amount of quickly moving water anywhere north of this point.
With so much water across a broad expanse of churning surface, the Mississippi River has been a focal point of industry and sustenance since before the dawn of the United States, and to witness the dynamic forces of it passing under this bridge and heading south to the ocean, it is remarkable in its strength and determination.
It is a river that is connected to the life of so many species and communities, including humans, being the main artery the drains the majority of the landscape across this country.
We are here this morning on its western bank in a small park at the foot of an 86-year-old bridge that crosses it, and we are here to clean it up.
Today is the day of the 7th Annual Confluence Trash Bash, a cleanup event put on by the Greenway Network (Stream Team #463). They are a “a grassroots volunteer based organization” whose mission is “to conserve natural resources, encourage sound management of the watersheds and protect the quality of life for the residents of the greater St. Louis area.”
A group of people that care about the well-being of the waterways around and throughout St. Louis City, County, and St. Charles County. Unlike a lot of Missouri creeks, they take on a very ambitious goal with the population density that we have here in the metropolitan area, but the silver lining is that it also allows for a large pool of volunteers.
And today is a shining example of the community response.
I am standing with Dr. Charlene Waggoner, the president of Greenway Network, and we are taking a moment to just relax and appreciate the sight before us.
The parking lot at the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge has been steadily filling with vehicles, and the line to sign in has been increasing in size. It takes a lot to pull this off, and there is a buzz in the air of energy and anxiety to what the outcome of the day will be.
With six start locations along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers wrapping around the northeast corner of St. Louis County, with multiple cleanup sites launching from each location, this is a huge endeavor.
With quite a bit of activity happening right in front of us, distracting attempts at conversation, I try to convey to Charlene the concept behind the Creighton Abrams quote “When eating an elephant, take one bite at a time.”
The idea that this is a massive event, almost too big to pull off, but if many people all take a bite it isn’t too overwhelming to be accomplished.
And that is how they have set it up, having done this six times previously already. With team leaders for each cleanup site, at sites all across the area with the logistical resources in place to properly dispose of the collected garbage and debris, the day is set and we are ready to begin.
At about 9 a.m., Roland Biehl of the Metropolitan Sewer District takes the microphone, welcomes all the excited volunteers, and announces the plan for the day. Then after a safety talk covering the conditions that we may run into in the next few hours, we are off on our way!
I have to confess, I must be lucky because I think I got the prettiest site of the day. As the team leader for site #5, I got to lead my group across a vast farm field in the southern section of Columbia Bottom Conservation Area to a compact forested length of floodplain that was the home to scattered garbage brought in by past floods.
As we walked south along the access road, we followed it where it turned to the west, continued onward, and then entered the tree line once we finally found the main drag of marooned litter and debris. It wasn’t a very big site; just a strip of forest about a quarter mile long and with a welcome openness between the trees, except for the spots where great cottonwoods had fallen and opened up the canopy to trees of less stature and the vines that like to drape over them.
The volunteers I had with me consisted of a handful of adults and an energetic group of kids from the Hazelwood School District, along with my own son, Eli, who was trying out some new muck boots today. Everyone made quick work of the place, moving over the diminutive leaf covered knolls that were shaped and molded by the movement of past flood water piling the sand and organic matter among the base of great trunks, ultimately polished flatter by the winds that blow across the expanses of this conservation area after the summer months have caused the water to retreat to its established river home.
So we scoured the assigned site, leaving the items we found in piles along the access road to be picked up later. As we walked back to the parking lot to the bus that brought us here, I was compelled to break off from the group and follow the young tree line that skirted the barren cornfield between us and our vehicles.
Much of this land is farmed, and the dry headless stalks from last year’s harvest stand a foot up above the sand dominated soil, like a field of pegs, all in lines and rows, stretching almost all the way to the river. The weather is perfect, and the job is done, so I enjoy some minutes just listening to the wind and appreciating the clumsy softness of every sandy step I take on my way back.
After a short ride back to the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge, we disperse from our groups to take care of little odds and ends and socialize while eating lunch, comparing stories of the day. Eli and I take a walk on the bridge to the center of the river to revel in the immensity of this giant artery through the center of the United States.
Not so directly obvious, but it is a part of our way of life beyond being just a great big river that we reside near that carries commerce along its length. It is connected to so many other places I enjoy spending time in. The water that flows through creeks that I float on or hike next to eventually becomes part of the Mississippi.
The trickles that I stop and listen to in the woods, splashing down a hillside toward a creek valley with their hypnotic babbles and hiccups, is just marks on the calendar away from moving silently along as part of this hulking mass of dynamic force.
The Mississippi River is connected to so much, even the clouds overhead, and it will still be flowing long after we have out-spent our time on this earth.
It has been a good day and I am glad to have been able to share it with all the great people that came out to be a part of this operation. Charlene would tell me later that from the 600+ participants spread across all the cleanup sites, 14 TONS of trash, 400 tires, and almost a ton of recyclable metal were removed from the watershed in the St. Louis area!
A very impressive amount, when you really think about it. Thank you to everyone that was involved. From the various Stream Teams, school groups, scout groups, community members, and outdoor advocates, many of whom I personally regard as dear friends and respected figures in the realm of conservation and community… YOU made this day the productive one that it ended up being.
The 7th Annual Confluence Trash Bash was truly a huge beast, massive and with outstretched appendages all across the St. Louis area, made up of many fingers and toes being dipped along a path of water.
On this Saturday in March, I can truly say that the monster that it is had successfully been consumed by the worthy efforts and energetic determination of all the hungry volunteers taking it down by the sheer force that comes from many bites, working together, one at a time.
I look forward to next year!
(Gabe Cotton lives in St. Louis.)