The old man flipped the worm and bobber combo back into the river. He had just caught a largemouth bass, gave it a cursory once-over and promptly tossed it back into the drink.
There was no selfie, Instagram post or Snapchat thread to document the occasion. Like the unconsidered rolling of the river, it was one more undersized fish, released to grow a little bigger. By the assembly of his gear, it didn’t look like he was interested in taking anything from the river except memories.
The flotilla that approached him, however, had other plans. Indeed, the ad hoc armada was purposely taking from the river. Yet this was to be addition by subtraction. For what they removed from the river had restorative effects that improved its health, to say nothing for its greedy sailors.
I was waiting for my family to complete the first day’s float of Iowa A.W.A.R.E. (A Watershed Awareness River Expedition). They were three to a canoe. I was one to a camp chair. They were doing good and having fun. I was high and dry — and a little bored.
Like forbidden fruit, activities you’re denied are that much more attractive. I was relegated to the shade and wanting because of my full-blown poison ivy attack. This was my second summer in a row of having a fight with that little weed. Someday I’ll learn.
The 16th running of Iowa A.W.A.R.E — think RAGBRAI with canoes — was on July 9. Instead of peddling, it’s light paddling while the river carries you downstream. Instead of keeping an eye out for the perfect slice of pie, the participants are looking for trash and human debris to rescue from the river and dispose of properly at the day’s takeout point. And while the participants get wet, it’s a dry event.
The beneficiary of this exercise in secular good works was the Maquoketa River — and all who love it. In fact, this was a return trip. This stretch hosted the very first A.W.A.R.E. in 2003.
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In the intervening years, thousands of people and tons of trash and recyclables have made this an event of distinction. Iowa native Brian Soenen has been involved with every running. As event director, he said 397 different people volunteered over the course of the week. Monday’s crew was 241. That day’s group multiplied by a conservative 3.5 man-hours equaled more than 840 hours of labor, an impressive figure. It is easy to see how Iowa A.W.A.R.E. in 2018 collected a total of 41,550 pounds of solid waste for the week, 69 percent of which was able to be recycled.
Nature inspires good works. Helping keep nature clean is such a necessary and satisfying effort. A wayward bottle or candy wrapper repositioned from the stream to dumpster is instantly gratifying. “I did that!” feels so good and can be practiced at any age.
A.W.A.R.E. is a testament to our disposable society’s hidden costs. Cheap plastic items aren’t so cheap when they ruin our views or poison birds and turtles. The word of the day is “externalities.”
A.W.A.R.E. also is a testament to the power of a small group set on making the world a better place. The ability of nature to heal itself is stupendous. But first we have to do our part.
Next year, I hope to dip my paddle with A.W.A.R.E. I want to say “I did that!” If you can’t make it, then at least consider “rescuing” trash you otherwise might step over in the parking lot. You’ll save someone the effort of fishing it from the river.
Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.
l John Lawrence Hanson, Ed.D., of Marion teaches U.S. history with an emphasis on environmental issues at Linn-Mar High School and sits on the Linn County Conservation Board.