It was a dark and stormy night…
…which was particularly annoying since the Upper Sangamon River Conservancy had spent the last several weeks if not months planning a major river cleanup event on the Sangamon River scheduled to start first thing in the morning.
And so, as it goes, I woke up at 6am Saturday morning to the disturbing tone of a ringing telephone. Rule of thumb: when the telephone rings at 6am, don’t answer it: the news is never good.
And sure enough, it was Bruce. Our leadership team had already been checking water levels and forecasts.
A flash flood warning was in effect and the river depth gage at Fisher had already begun to register a rise that could only be described as “meteoric”.
Several members had already gone down to the river in and around Mahomet for a visual scan and noted the rising and rapidly flowing Sangamon. I myself, still in my sleeping clothes (which could only be described as “minimalist”), walked out the door and over to my riverbank. The river was easily up 4 or 5 feet from Friday afternoon.
Under such potentially hazardous conditions, we really wouldn’t want people going down the river.
And so it was that we began to seriously utter the dreaded “C-word”: Cancellation.
This must be how school officials feel early in the morning after a blizzard.
Weeks of planning had gone into this event.
Over 40 people had signed on and were presumably ready to go. We had coordinated transportation of several drivers to transport over 20 U of I students from the Wildlife Society. Mike Boero and Val Woodruff had graciously offered their home on the Sangamon as the terminal dumping point for potentially tons of Sangamon River waste. That Friday, Republic Waste Services (shout out to Republic Waste for their donated support!) had perfectly placed a huge dumpster in the Boero’s yard right down near the riverbank.
Not only that, but Mike and Val had spent the last week preparing their home for a post-clean-up feast for 40 hungry cleanup volunteers and supporting crew.
And I had spent weeks coordinating, registering attendees, gathering every canoe I could procure from hither and yon and stationing them up at Sangamon River Forest Preserve so they were ready. Several volunteers and I had spent weeks making some of the Sangamon’s notorious log jams passable so that cleanup crews could more easily pass through. We were ready goshdarnit!!
And we knew if we cancelled, rescheduling would be another logistical nightmare with more exhausting planning, even cooler fall weather ahead and probably resulting in significantly reduced volunteer turnout (as it had when we had to cancel and reschedule last year’s event).
But as the morning sun rose, the sky cleared. I made some calls and several people reportedly were moving ahead with river cleanup plans for the day despite the disturbing portents.
Then I got a call reporting that the flash flood warning had been lifted. Mike reported that he went out to the river at his place, far upriver from Mahomet, and noted only a relatively small rise in water levels and only a slight increase in flow. He was raring to go.
Then I got a call saying our 20 student volunteers were on their way.
We all agreed we’d do a visual scan of river conditions at the put-in point at the Sangamon River Forest Preserve –which was even further upriver – and make our final decision from there. Participants could decide at that point if they would rather stay behind.
At the Forest Preserve, the river had only risen a foot or two and the flow of the current was mild. Wildcat Slough, where we put in, had a much stronger-than-usual flow, but certainly not unmanageable as a launch point for our volunteer crew.
Our event coordinators kicked into action getting canoes in the water and loading up enthusiastic volunteers and our cleanup event was under way.
Within the first 100 yards, one of the first canoes was pulling a large plastic muddy and algae-covered kiddie pool off the bank and into their canoe.
Cautionary note to parents of small children who live on the banks of the Sangamon during periods of high water: pull your kiddie pool up to higher ground.
Not too much farther, I and another student were chest-deep in the river extracting a large plastic culvert entangled in a pile of logs.
Our weeks and months of planning truly paid off. Despite our worries of a couple hours earlier, the event proceeded without a hitch. Unless you consider a few massive, newly fallen silver maple trees blocking the river from bank to bank a hitch. As for us, we don’t.
By the end, the dumpster was brimming with 1 ½ tons of trash, including plastic and glass bottles, cans, unrecognizable shreds of plastic and bits of Styrofoam, old chairs, a ladder, a rusted 55 gallon drum, a busted up charcoal grill, rolls of rusted fencing, a plastic culvert, a kiddie pool and much, much more.
A river is a moody and temperamental thing. A river will make your day as quickly as it will ruin it.
But in the end, for those of us that live for our rivers, the rewards far exceed the challenges.
It was a dark and stormy night…
…but by late afternoon the next day, blue skies ushered in a beautifully sunny late summer day, temperature a perfect 71 degrees, and dumpster as stuffed as our bellies. We sat around on Mike and Val’s brand new deck overlooking the river, having a beer and pitching an old tennis ball off the deck and down the heavily forested riverbank for their (very) enthusiastic border collie to bound down and retrieve.
After all, we wouldn’t want it going down the river.
Appeared as Notes from the River, Mahomet Citizen, September 24, 2015, by Scott Hays