Scenes from a River Clean-up

Twenty-two people mill about on the mostly dry Crooked Creek delta awaiting the start of our Sangamon River cleanup. Mottled sunlight from the deep blue, first-day-of-Autumn sky filters through the bright green leaves far overhead and down to the river’s surface.

It’s a beautiful day down on the Sangamon River to celebrate our very own “It’s Our River Day”.

Positive energy fills the air as everyone is helping one another get canoes down the uneven concrete steps of the bank, out onto the delta, loaded and ready to launch.

Bruce poses the whole group of us for a photo on the dry ground right in the middle of what had earlier this year been the river.

Five feet up on a silver maple, itself eight feet up the steps on the bank, an orange spray painted line marks a reminder of the height of the river this past May.

These folks would be standing under at least six feet of water were it that high today.

What a difference three and half months make.


Joyce and I had never met, but we partner up in the 17 foot aluminum Montgomery Ward Sea King. Along with a few others, we work our way upriver while the rest of the crew heads down stream.

Joyce and I continue cleaning our way upstream as the others disappear behind us out of sight. We collect bottles, cans, cups, wood scraps, a microwave, and even a saturated couch cushion sprouting a a juvenile silver maple.

All the while, chatting casually about ourselves and our day jobs. We swap stories of things we’d been involved with and drop names of people we both know.

It is, in the end, a very small world.


Levi paddles his 16 foot Novacraft Royalex canoe solo. He’s happy to do so. Good thing.

About an hour into our cleanup, the Novacraft sits low in the water, already loaded over the gunwhale with a car tire and a complete automobile door. Filled with river muck and window glass intact, it took four guys to extract it from the gravelly river bottom and hoist it into Levi’s canoe.

There was barely any room left for Levi.

Before the day was over, Levi would be paddling the Novacraft sitting perched atop the point of the stern, feet dangling in the river. If not walking along behind it.

Despite being kicked out of his own canoe by the sheer mass of other people’s garbage, Levi just keeps on smilin’.


We come upon the mother of all Sangamon River log jams. Piled 10 feet high, 200 feet long, and sprawling across the river, there are probably enough logs here to reconstruct an entire 1850’s village.

Each of the ten near-full canoes (and 4 kayaks) have to be unloaded (including the 4-man car door) and hauled along a rough and uneven 150 foot portage path through and around the trees. At the other end, the canoes and all their junk have to be lowered down a three foot root-entangled embankment and each one reloaded.

These are the times that try teams’ souls. I secretly imagine that half the volunteers, newcomers to the Sangamon River, would run screaming from the Sangamon and this whole clean-up enterprise and never look back. But it was not to be.

The team soldiers on, smiling, laughing, everyone helping everyone share the load. And we’re back on the river again.

I declare, “From here on, it’s gonna be smooth sailin’!”  At the same time, I kinda figure it won’t be.


A 3 foot diameter log blocks the river holding back all manner of flotsam and jetsam. Here, the very heavy canoes had to be carefully lifted over one at a time, bow then stern, and then guided back down into the river. Joyce and I and several others stand in the shallows and help teams cross. We unloaded and reloaded the car door and a huge truck tire from Levi’s Novacraft for fear of snapping it in two.

Waiting for the others, I lay flat on my back on the log, which feels particularly good on my just-starting-to-ache back.

Gazing upward, my mind drifts. If I ever have a country, the flag will be the brilliant yellow green of the sunlit sycamore leaves, the deep cobalt blue of the Autumn sky, and the pure white of the clouds and the highest sycamore branches.

A beautiful flag it would be. The most unearthly earth tones a person could experience.


Unloading the canoes in the muck where Lake of the Woods spillway meets the river, I kick off my crocs, my standard river footwear. The mud keeps sucking them off anyway. Now I experience the full glorious feeling of thick, juicy river mud squishing between my toes.

The four foot, 45 degree bank gets slicker with every muddy item unloaded.

From one of the canoes, we pull an astoundingly heavy, thoroughly saturated, muddy but still patriotic-looking red, white and blue blanket. We pay little attention as we lay it out on the steep slick bank so we might gain a little traction. Then Erika notes, “Hey look, it’s a rebel flag!”

After serving its purpose of being trampled upon lying in the mud, we tossed it unceremoniously into the dumpster.



Twenty-two people, plus our three land-based lunch crew, mill about at the Sycamore Shelter at Lake of the Woods. Positive energy fills the air as everyone hungrily consumes freshly grilled burgers and brats, baked beans, slaw, fresh fruits and veggies and various desserts.

Far from exhausted, far from worn out, positive energy and excitement fills the air as new friends share tales of a job well done. Tales destined to last longer than the 2 and a half tons of junk they extracted from the river.

As they anticipate next time.

It was a beautiful day down on the Sangamon River to have celebrated our very own “It’s Our River Day”.

Appeared as Notes from  the River, Mahomet Citizen, October 3, 2013, by Scott Hays

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