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Paradise with a Paddle

Posted on June 25th, 2013

The DNR’s river clean-up is like RAGBRAI on the river – minus the partying

Dan Ceynar and his daughter Grace enjoy a day on the river with Project AWARE.

Dan Ceynar and his daughter Grace enjoy a day on the river with Project AWARE.

As the record-setting drought of 2012 dragged Iowa’s river levels down, plenty came to the surface – and not all of it pretty. “It’s easy to ignore a problem if you don’t know it exists,” says IIHR Engineer Dan Ceynar.

But last year, it’s become much harder to ignore the refuse in our rivers.

Turns out, a lot of garbage was hiding under the surface: tires, water heaters, stoves, snowmobiles, refrigerators, bicycles, bed frames, and more. “You name it, it’s been pulled out,” Ceynar says.

Ceynar has firsthand knowledge about pulling trash out of rivers; in fact, he’s something of a river clean-up fanatic. His idea of paradise is paddling down a river in his canoe; if he’s collecting trash, he’s even happier.

Raising AWAREness

It all started with Project AWARE (A Watershed Awareness River Expedition), one of the state’s first big river clean-up movements. Project AWARE moves to a different Iowa watershed for one week each July, bringing hundreds of canoe-based volunteers to clean up the stuff that shouldn’t be there. The clean-up effort is sponsored by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), with help from other sponsors such as IIHR and the Iowa Flood Center. This year, Project AWARE is scheduled for July 6–13. Students of IIHR (SIIHR) will be participating, along with Ceynar and a host of other volunteers from around the state.

Ceynar compares Project AWARE to RAGBRAI on the river – minus the partying. Most people camp in tents and share evening campfires along the river after a catered meal and educational programs. There’s often music, and lots of low-key socializing. Bathing? It’s optional, but if everyone smells a little river-y, who cares?

Ceynar got involved in Project AWARE in 2006, when it came to the Iowa River near Iowa City. He’s now a river clean-up veteran who brings shovels and other tools to excavate the big stuff out of the mud – such as sections of cars, or, in several instances, boats – including a 17-foot fiberglass ski boat.

How Did That Get There?

Some of it is “legacy trash,” dumped in the river decades ago before people understood the value of preserving the environment. Some of it washed in during recent flooding. And some of it is just dumped by people who should know better, Ceynar says.

One way to change the “dump it in the river” mentality may be by bringing Project AWARE to town. Last year, the clean-up crew pulled more than 32 tons of trash out of the Turkey River near Elgin. Just seeing what has been lurking under the river’s surface can change hearts and minds, Ceynar says – especially for kids. He hopes to help bring about that change of attitude, “one kid at a time.”

One Project AWARE experience is usually all it takes to make a conversion, Ceynar says. “Something happens – it gets in your blood.”

He’s got no regrets. In fact, Ceynar has gotten involved with other river clean-ups in the state, including the creation of the Iowa River Clean-Up and organizational responsibilities for the Lower Wapsie River Clean-Up.

“If we’re lucky,” Ceynar says, “we all find a passion in this life.” He’s found his – paddling down one of Iowa’s rivers, balancing a pyramid of trash on his canoe.

More Iowa river clean-ups:

The Lower Wapsi Clean-up
August 23–25

Iowa River Clean-up Project
September 14

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