Reflections from a River Cleanup

And so it was that I was standing neck deep in the Sangamon River.

The river was about 6 feet deep (and me only 5’6”) with the current strong, but I did have one hand on a fallen tree to hold myself steady against the current. Besides, Roger and Brian were in their canoe right beside me.

I was standing on a truck tire on the river bottom, still clinging tight to its steel rim.

I was trying to work the toe of my right foot down through a slot in the rim. I figured if I could do that, I could maybe lift it up with my foot just high enough to reach down and grab it with my hand and pull it up. Then maybe Brian could reach it, slip the nylon rope through the slot, so that we could drag it over to the bank and put it back in my canoe, where it had been about 5 minutes earlier.

So it goes during Sangamon River cleanup day.

Just a bit earlier, Alida had spotted that rather large and weighty truck tire up on the bank. She had pulled over and gotten out of her kayak, determined to pick up this huge and heavy tire. So as I came upon her, I pulled my canoe over to lend a hand.

I still had room too, since I was paddling solo.

Earlier, 27 of us had set out from Lake of the Woods, down by the Izaak Walton Cabin where the lake spillway meets the river on the fifth Annual Sangamon River Cleanup.

Not long after we started I, in my solo canoe, came upon Bart, Bruce and Steve working the bank. Bart had climbed up the bank, attempting to extricate a rather large truck tire he’d spotted (this one not on the rim).

He freed it from the dirt and figured the easiest way to get it down the bank was to just let it roll. Which he did. And it almost rolled right over Steve, his front man, still sitting by the bank in their canoe.  Steve was unharmed, just a bit shook up from being nearly run over by a runaway truck tire while canoeing the Sangamon River. Not what you’d expect.

Since I hadn’t gotten much of a load yet and could use the extra weight up front, we loaded the oversized tire into my canoe. Hanging off to one side, it made it a bit awkward to paddle, but no matter. I pressed on.

Further along, I came upon Eric and Kristina and several others loading a volleyball net post into their canoe from the bank. The base of the pole was set in a tire filled with concrete. It wasn’t light and took about three of us to hoist it into their canoe.

Then it was time for the other pole, sitting out in the river. Four of us walked out in the current, leaned it over and rolled the tire and pole over to the bank and loaded it in my canoe, since I still had room. We laid it on its side with the pole pointing forward and angled upward. I pressed on, my awkward and weighted down canoe now resembling a miniature battleship.

That’s how I came across Alida.  She was over on the bank beside a fallen tree, wrestling with another even heavier truck tire, this one on the rim.

I pulled off, and Alida and I, mustering all of our strength, hoisted the truck tire, steel rim and all into my canoe and perched it somewhat precariously on top of the other tire up front and under my battleship gun. I should have known better.

Here’s where it got tricky.

As I backed my canoe away from the bank, the current pressed my canoe against the fallen tree. The canoe did not want to back out past that tree.

Had I not gotten the starboard gunwhale pinched under a knot on the tree, I might have actually made it.

That’s when the canoe started listing to starboard and then, with the canoe leaning, the concrete volleyball pole rolled over to the starboard side too. I could no longer hold this position as the starboard gunwhale dipped below the waterline and my canoe quickly filled with water and went down, carrying with it its entire oversize load in super slo-mo, Titanic style.

I grabbed that tree with one hand and my black plastic trash bag with the other as my canoe sank. The canoe continued down, rolled under the tree, then went floating off downriver upside down. The tires and my volleyball pole were now down on the bottom under that tree.

After ensuring I was OK, which I was, a few others came over to help, picking up my trash bag, my water bottle and one of my shoes as they were floating away.

I swam downstream to where Bart and Steve were wrestling my sunk canoe up on the bank. We dragged it up, flipped it, and dumped out the water. Then I set out back upstream. I was disappointed I’d lost my load of other people’s river garbage and was determined to get it back.

Which gets us back to the beginning of our story.

And to make an already too long story short, we never could get that truck tire up. Alida even swam out and went down underwater to try and get a rope through the rim to no success.

Although I lost the volleyball pole to the muddy bottom, I did use my feet to find the first tire, the one that Bart had assaulted Steve with. We perched it back in my canoe up front and I, very disappointed, set off downstream.

It was all for the best though, and it was another very successful cleanup. I only write this now to say, the next time you ponder tossing some piece of garbage into a nearby river, think of me.

Standing neck deep in the Sangamon River trying to retrieve it with my feet.

Appeared as Notes from the River, Mahomet Citizen, September 29, 2016, by Scott Hays



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