Follow Up/Round Up (of tires of course)

It’s been horrible to not be back on the Big River. Even worse because those StL Canoe&Kayak people got me hooked on all the ‘fun’ in the water capabilities of kayaks, just enough to frustrate me because I’m not quite mastered Greenland Rolls well enough to just do it on my own.  I know I can do it, but 20 minutes wasn’t quite enough for me to go solo.  I do practice the edges & braces.  Braces are getting more and more fun as I can get pretty far over, at least enough to get water into the top of the skirt.

Part II – Operation Clean Stream coming two weeks before Part 1.

August 9th, water levels permitting (2.5′ gauge at Bonne Terre is what we are shooting for) Cherokee Landing will again put our family out on the Big River to pull tires.  This will be my 7th tire roundup on the Big. My family’s 5th.  I love taking my kids to pull tires on the Big River.  They not only pull tires, they pull me along as well.  When I run out of gas, they are my EverReady batteries.  They have so much good energy, I find this weekend cleanup to be more enjoyable than any float trip!

hope you can join us on the River to pull tires. There are fewer than before, but still enough to go around.

Happy Paddling!

Get yourself on the water.

The First Shall Be Last

Overall view of the genesis of the Big River

Overall view of the genesis of the Big River

Our headquarters for the day

Our headquarters for the day

The Big River begins somewhere beneath this beautiful lake with its beautiful water. I’ve been told by some of those that have been around a while that the Big River changed fairly dramatically when they built the dam that enclosed the BIG spring from whence Big River erupts.  I can’t comment there, but to pass on the observation.  And to say that at this point the lake while quite remote, is a gem.  The water just feels good.  And I felt it a lot today, learning all kinds of kayak rolls and rescues at St. Louis Canoe & Kayak’s Safety Skills event.  (Shout out to Dave Haessig that blew me away by before even introducing himself, saying that he followed this blog, I was stunned and suddenly very self-conscious about what I may have intoned in my writing. I know there are a few displeased with my less than flattering portrayals)

So when I learned that this event was to be held at THE BIRTHPLACE OF THE BIG, I knew I had to go.  Thinking I was some kind of dude for paddling the floatable length of the Big River, I tried vainly to pass myself off as an ‘intermediate kayaker’. Little did I know just how little I knew.  Matt Miller, our patient, knowledgable instructor, kept asking me if I knew how to do this rescue or that move, or if we would just remember having covered this in our beginning class.  All Greek to me, but I did the best I could and felt like I learned a TON.  Our class was generously small, so we received plenty of individual scrutiny and valuable correction & encouragement. Thanks to my classmates, Mike, Harry, Kouros and Kevin, especially Kevin. He set the bar for me time and again and helped me to just ‘go for it’.  “Flip my kayak in the middle of the lake on purpose??? Sure, why not, Kevin just did!!”

Now when it comes to entering new groups like StL Canoe&Kayak, I am the worst at making myself at home.  I’ve never ‘worked’ a room in my life.  Fortunately I at least knew Bob Jung and his sweet wife.  They made me feel at home, even when I broke all kayak etiquette by carrying my kayak like a canoe!  Who knew??  But I love to learn stuff from people who love the stuff they’re teaching.  Case in point was Jason who was teaching the rolls.  You could tell he just loved rolling around in the water like the second coming of Eric Jackson!  But even better was when he sized up my age, inexperience and Greenland paddle and directed me into the simplest, least strength requiring, EASIEST of rolls, the basic Greenland roll.  Then he even complimented me on my flexibility.  That hasn’t happened since a co-ed reverse volleyball tournament in 1986 in Pojoaque, New Mexico!  >>day made.

it was great getting poured on in the headwaters of the Big, but I am constantly reminded of my roots here. Pulling tires & trash is what brought me back to the water, and while I was out playing around, ST211 & friends were pulling tons of junk out of the Meramec without me.  Silly pink t-shirts aside, I better get back to work. Sorry Bernie, Sorry Brian, Sorry Gabe, Eli, Ken, Chris, Sam, Kim, Doug, etc. etc.  I will get back to work soon!!

Thanks for reading!

32 miles???

What was I thinking? The first stroke of a 32 mile leg from WSP to Morse Mill

What was I thinking? The first stroke of a 32 mile leg from WSP to Morse Mill

i just love the Big River. It has brought me back to life in so many ways. I wrote before how crazy and unsafe it was for me to do most of this 129 mile trek solo. Yet people do these kinds of treks all the time.  Often on the “BIG” River, the Mississippi, for weeks on end, not just a couple days and a few feet from shore.  No great dangers like passing barges, or man-eating eddies.  I have no illusions of grandeur here.  But I did have hopes of illuminating what I and so many people who have lived along the Big River feel.  A base enjoyment for a stream disparaged by the authorities, ignored by the mining industry, dumped in with 1,000’s of tires.  Despite all the negativity, there is so much to love about the Big River.  It’s cool that other people may not think so highly of it.  It becomes our secret, our own little gold mine of nature.  I was moved that some readers of this blog would offer me lawn space to pitch my tent.  A VERY generous offer on a stretch that offers few places from camping kayakers like myself.

So when I set out from Washington State Park at 8am on a cold rainy morning I had no clue where I would stop that night.  I had heard the horror stories of farmers that owned both sides of the stream and disregarded the state’s vague laws governing passage on navigable waters (Mark Wiley/Belews Crk Watershed).  I figured I would stop some place logical, whatever that would be.
i do enjoy paddling, but at the age of 58, I no longer have big dreams or aspirations of superhuman feats.  My first stop was Merrill Horse.  8.5 mi. downstream.  My progress was steady, but I wasn’t setting any kayaking speed records.  Merrill Horse seemed like a typical bare bones MDC Access.  Most notable was that the pouring rain was letting up. Then came Calico Creek, then Brown’s Ford and Ditch Creek.  It was easy for me to miss the stream confluences, because kayaks do encourage you to look ahead of you, because again, you wear a kayak, almost as a southern belle would wear a hoop skirt. (My apologies for the unflattering analogy, but it does give you a sense of attachment between kayaker & kayak.)
As the day got more beautiful, my spirits lifted, only to tempered by the rise in gusting winds that played havoc with my double bladed paddle and my trusty stream team hat (the one that makes me look far more official than I am).
The miles continued to tick off as my stroke got simpler and smoother.
My friend Jerry Roth had tried to mark the sandbars on my map that might offer a safe camping spot. The flood stage waters had eliminated most of those. Options narrowed. My one hope was sneaking into Morse Mill. I arrived there at 4:00pm, having covered 32 miles in 8 hours, 4mph! I was elated, though a wee bit tired. Tired enough, that IF I had cell ph coverage at Morse Mill I would have bailed. I didn’t. I spent the night there, comforted by the sign that read ‘< I didn’t sleep well that night under the picnic table, but I slept dry, and unhurried the next morning. Thank you MDC, for providing these public access spots! For us paupers that can’t buy our dream home on the River, they are GOLD! I also easily portaged around my first mill dam. At the higher water level, it looked very runnable, but I felt like I was tempting fate enough as it was, I wasn’t needing to prove my manliness or any such silliness. Good thing because two more portaged awaited the next morning.

Sycamores and Power

Floating the lower Big River, one thing was very obvious.  There are times when the power of the Big River is overwhelming.  You see it in the homes along the bank that are either on stilts or well up steep slopes.  One poignant marker of that power was one of the many large sycamores toppled in the water.  What set this one apart was that 20′ above the water level, at flood stage, was a nicely crafted picket fence section.  It was as if the River was waving it as a trophy.  Water rules, no matter how much man thinks he owns the land.  In fact, today I suspect that most of the trash is not so much thrown in the River as the River comes up and snatches it, or tips the unwary boater, or steadily disrobes the junk thrown on the banks and ditches as armature.

Everyone, any one who wants to be part of the process of planning what happens in the Big River should be required to do this traverse of its length, preferably more than once so they can hopefully discard their man-centric wisdom and understand that nature has its ways and patterns.  We do much better to deftly emulate those patterns than rushing in with our CAD plans and earthmoving equipment thinking we will solve anything.  Has this water course been abused and polluted? Yes.  Sadly as much by those who are charged to protect it as those who have just been greedy and didn’t care for real sustainability.

The most sculptural of flora, a mighty Sycamore.

The most sculptural of flora, a mighty Sycamore.

Observing the natural systems at play in the Big River, I have come to be more than impressed by the sycamore tree more so than any other element in the riparian corridor? It is the one plant that stands up again and again to the power of the River. I first noticed these picket like sticks in March that marked the end of every pool and signaled that a set of rapids was imminent, that the River was being pressed to divert itself and it was none to happy about it.  The River does not take a challenge lightly, notable by the hundreds if not thousands of sycamores that have been felled by the river’s retaliation across the 129 miles of Big River that I paddled.  Silver maples come in second behind the valiant sycamore, but don’t be mistaken, the sycamore is the champion of streambank adjustment, not a mere victim.

Insanity = Broken Rules

My thoughts as I’m paddling away from Washington St. Park in a downpour…

Rules of Safety on the River are there for a reason.

These are not rules that are ‘made’ to be broken, like some rules.  But for some reason, I ignored them.  Why is for discussion later.  So here goes, these are the rules I broke in one fell swoop:

#1. Don’t kayak alone on any River.

#2. Don’t kayak alone on River sections you aren’t familiar with.

#3. Don’t kayak alone on unfamiliar sections at flood stage.

#4. Don’t kayak alone on unfamiliar sections at flood stage in a downpour.

#5. Don’t kayak alone on unfamiliar sections at flood stage in a downpour without proper rain gear, or a spray skirt.

#6. Don’t kayak alone on unfamiliar sections at flood stage with gusty wind conditions.

#7. Don’t kayak alone on unfamiliar sections at flood stage in a kayak you’ve owned less than a year AND that you really just started to learn how to kayak less than a year ago!

What was I thinking…. Obviously, I wasn’t. That would be why my knuckles were so white, IF you could see them under my stream team gloves.

Why did my wife let me do something so insane?

But to be truthful, I do relish these challenges, NOT because I step up to the challenge, but because it is an opportunity for me to prayerfully trust in God to see me through.  This is not the pledge of great faith, but just your run of the mill wretched sinner that NEEDS God to show Himself strong to me, the one that slept in the bow during a storm, to be awoken by his disciples, rebuking their little faith, and with a word, calming the seas, in a way that no one doubted what he had just done.

i survived (no I wouldn’t be writing this if I hadn’t). I even survived to the tune of more than 32 miles covered that day.  Not because I’m fast. The water was fast. But I do love to paddle a kayak.  It is the simplest of exercises, one I did comfortably for about 8 hours straight, without any real pains or aches. I credit Jackson kayaks with making the world’s most comfortable seat.  I’m not a fan of sitting.

the interesting thing about flood stage: fewer obstacles as the water is deeper, but more roiling and churning of the water.  The wind was a major headache.  It was grabbing the double blade of the paddle and pushing in another direction, while the roiling would twist you in still another, while the current had a third idea of where your kayak should go.  It was like being mediator between four at odds parties, trying to get all four to agree in a safe direction to flow. Not impossible, just time occupying.

By the end of the day, I was ready to throw in the towel.  The only thing that saved me was being out of cell phone coverage, so couldn’t just call my wife and tell her to pick me up.

it was a GREAT DAY on the Big River!

On to Washington State Park

Washington State Park Boat Ramp @Hwy21

Washington State Park Boat Ramp @Hwy21

I thought it would be difficult to meet my wife at our agreed rondevouz at Washington State Park.  Steve had told me if I left at 6am, I could be there by 2 or 3 pm.  No way could I be there earlier.  But for me leaving by 6 am wasn’t realistic.  After my swamping, I took a healthy dose of caution, fueled by a healthy fear in every choice I made.  Leaving before sun up was not ever going to happen.  I’d like to see the rapids that swamp me.

Instead I left around 7:30am and arrived at noon!!! 17 miles in 4.5 hours.  I even out ran the coyotes that trotted along the bank with me for a few yards.  The fauna was glorious, -beaver fell off the bank into the water as I cruised by.  He was a bit overweight it looked. the baby otter that couldn’t figure out what I was, the muskrat swimming in circles, the four great blue herons that took off at one time and seemingly filled the sky with their wings.  And this on a stretch noted for its collection of tires. (it doesn’t have the benefit of an outfitter or stream teamer seeing that it gets cleaned up for clients).

Steve, the night before, had mentioned a canoe/kayak race being reinstituted from St. Francis State Park to Washington State Park, but starting at Cherokee Landing instead.  My inspired idea was to have the race be like the Tour de Donut bike race, but instead of giving time off for each donut eaten, you take time off for each pound of tire carted to the finish line.  Enough entrants and within a year or so, that stretch would be CLEAN as a Grumman in a Canoe Museum.

So what do I see upon my arrival at the Washington State Park?  A Purcell truck on lunch break.  Seemed too much of a coincidence, so I walked right over to him and started a conversation.  That would be a perfect fit for the rubber they recycle.  We will see if that serendipitous moment is indeed Serendip.


one of the few outfitters on the Big River, but not the only.

one of the few outfitters on the Big River, but not the only.

State Park to State Park

State Park to State Park

a warning or proviso of specific stipulations, conditions, or limitations.
synonyms: warning, caution, admonition

I’ve come to realize that I really love the Big River.  It is like so many of us. We start off life pretty innocently, but people just seem to dump into our lives.  Some of it is good, like the teacher that inspires us, or the parent that nourishes us, but often, even people who ‘love’ us dump junk into our lives, be it a type of language, or a bad habit, or a despairing word that makes us believe that life is a lot tougher than it is. that we can’t cope as well as we think we can.

The Big River is like that.  A beautiful stream that people have dumped on.  Not people who hate the river.  People like me or you, who may have even wanted the best for the river, but sowed despair instead.

After the Riffle encounter, I made the last 10 miles of the day down to Cherokee Landing, where Steve Anderson was offering me a place to put up my tent. (there are very few places on the river to ‘legally’ put up your tent. More in St. Francois County than Jefferson County, but  still few.

I was dead tired plowing past the familiar territory of St Francis State Park, on slipping under Hwy 67 for the last time, into Cherokee Landing.  Getting unloaded was never such a difficult task.  I had no gas left, but somehow I did it, forced myself to eat something and CRASHED.  By 8pm I was fast asleep.  But I hadn’t gotten to REM sleep, because about 8:30p I awoke hearing Steve calling my name.  We chatted for a bit as I told him about the construction at Flat River.

(caveat: I love the Big River, Steve obviously loves the Big River, those guys from Corps of Engineers love the Big River, the EPA loves the Big River, those mining companies love the Big River and even the guy taking potshots off the back of his pickup at Bone Hole loves the Big River.  It’s just that love manifests itself in different ways, most completely above the law and totally legal, even though not truly in the Big River’s best interest.  There are competing interests, love of land, love of paying the bills, love of the politics being bandied about, love of my own interest, in other words we are all selfish to a point.  No one is completely innocent here.)

Without understanding that caveat, it is easy to get ugly real quick, assuming that other people are not operating in the River’s best interest, nor my best interest.  Some people choose their intervention, many mean no harm whatsoever, some even mean to aid the river and unknowingly do harm, like the old Dept. of Conservation edict that told farmers that it wasn’t a bad idea to use those old truck tires to rip rap their eroding banks or gullies flowing into the stream.  Sometimes do no harm is harder than we realize.

So the next morning I flew the 17 miles up from Cherokee Landing to Washington State Park. -cont’d

Surprise around the bend

Site of the Newberry Riffle

The entire trip has been solo, no one else in sight.  Imagine my surprise….

One section that my family & I have spent a lot of time on the Big River pulling tires is from Hwy 67 at the new bridge north to the Hwy K bridge.  Last year myself and 4 of my 7 kids plus 1 or 2 friends pulled out 141 tires. 66 in Aug, 75 in Sept. The previous year we had pulled out 101 in one trip. This was river I know pretty well, but every river changes with the season and the water level and the water conditions and the weather, etc.  This day the water was high & fast.  I was being rather cautious, having swamped earlier.  I didn’t want to find myself in another dead end.  I passed the confluence with Flat River and promptly got out to check the downed tree ahead to see if it had rendered the creek impassable.  Odd thing was there used to be some riparian edge along the north side of this stretch.  It was all gone??  Who would do that?

The downed tree didn’t block the stream, I easily went right through but all of a sudden I was seeing people. 3 or 4 guys standing up on the bank next to some large earth moving equipment, a guy in waders standing in the middle of the stream and more concerning, a long wire across the stream encased in floatation that obviously blocked my path.  Being tired and knowing I had 10 more miles to paddle did not make me talkative.  The guy in the water motioned that he could raise the line for me to go under, was all I needed.  As I passed by he spoke up.  “You’re lucky you came by today, if you came two weeks later you’d have to portage one half mile around this area.”  I paddled on through, before the words really sank in.  Portage 1/2 mile??  There is no way  I could do that all loaded with camping gear in a 14′ kayak.  Who are these guys? What are they doing here?

Surely Steve Anderson at Cherokee Landing would know what was going on.

I found out later that night that it was news to him too!!  Who could just start doing construction in a river and not have every one & their uncle have to sign off on it?  That question should have clued me in.  I learned two days later that it was the USACE (US Army Corps of Engineers)  They control everything that happens in the country with in floodplains, wetlands and waterways.  They are the only ones that could mount an operation like this and do so with minimal to do.

They along with the EPA are pretty freaked out about the sediment Pb levels in the Big River and this was their pilot project, a Newberry Riffle with a sediment settling pond.  I would be all for this, but experience has shown me that they cannot make Pb go away any better than the than the mining companies. (encasing chat piles in larger rock is not a very creative solution by any standard) but mining companies can live with the cost of some Newberry riffles. At least they aren’t dredging the length of the river.

I should be more concerned, we are talking about dispersal of a toxic element, Pb, lead, plumbum, the stuff that we used to put in our gas tanks to keep our engines from knocking while poisoning the whole country. The real problem is that no one can precisely define lead poisoning. There are safety thresholds set that some say are ridiculously cautious, others maintain are not nearly cautious enough, others that think they must have it right because everyone disagrees with them. I can’t solve that here, I’m just saying what I saw on the Big River. We got a riffle, one more intervention.

Remember, Nature wins the day… ultimately.

God’s Creation is amazing.

Desloge Impoundment

from the water the dam is gargantuan, a monstrous amphitheater that holds backs tons & tons & tons of ultra finely crushed rock.

from the water the dam is gargantuan, a monstrous amphitheater that holds backs tons & tons & tons of ultra finely crushed rock.

Leaving Bone Hole and its engaging little bluffs, I find myself returning to where this Big River adventure really started for me.  You see, several years ago I thought for my work I should learn about what was going on, on the Big River.  Somehow I learned about a Tire Roundup, …a TIRE roundup?? on a river??  I couldn’t imagine.  I sure didn’t know how to dress for such an occasion.  What do you bring to an event like that? How many tires could there possibly be?  25 people showed up that morning, in 22 canoes.  That was my first time meeting Steve Anderson at Cherokee Landing.  He loaded up a bunch of canoes and delivered us to this spot called Bone Hole,  how weird?

I didn’t know the Old Lead Belt very well at that point.  Otherwise I would have realized that the first few miles from Bone Hole would be a big loop, circumnavigating 3+ sides of the Desloge Tailings Impoundment, since 1974, the SFCEC Landfill.  Just a little background on tailings, since the early 1920’s Lead mine mills have used a ‘flotation’ process to separate lead & other metal concentrates from the rest of the rock.  This process required that the rock be ground up extremely fine and run the sudsy chemical bath that would separate the valuable from what is not deemed valuable, the fine waste rock known as tailings.  These tailings are left in a slurry to be pumped out into a waste impoundment.  They are so fine that they for all intents & purposes are a liquid.  Prior to the 1920’s the tailings were less crushed separated by a gravity process and would be stored in a huge heap, today we know them as ‘chat piles’.  But back to the tailings, they must be put behind a dam of sorts because they would flow everywhere, they are viscous, not a good thinng.

So back to the Tire Roundup, we took off down the Big River in what looked to me like a nice stream, with the occasional tire here or there.  After a few miles most canoes were no more than half full.  Mine less so, because frankly I didn’t have a clue to what I was doing, but boy could I appreciate the fierce love these folks had for the environment.  They looked pretty scraggly as a group, but their resolve was crystal clear.

THEN, we came to the biggest man made intervention on the entire Big River corridor.  The Big River takes a tight 90 degree turn at the Desloge Tailings Impoundment dam and it appears like a GIANT amphitheatre from the water.  With the appearance of the dam there also appeared many more tires. MANY more tires.  Every canoe was full from that point forward.  That day 389 tires were removed from the Big River and I was a Stream Teamer, with plenty of coaxing from the others that befriended me that day.

So here I was, going back to the start, this time in my loaded kayak, unable to stop and grab a tire, even if I wanted to.  There are still tires there.  Not as many, but they seem to appear like magic.  Waters move them, bury them, uncover them.  Some people say they should be left because the provide habitat.  I have seen a few snakes slither out of them, but again they are an unwanted intervention in nature.  They don’t belong there.

But I was reminded why I am doing this trip, …to do a recon have the entire river so I could have an idea of where the greatest needs are along the river.  Things I can do something about.  I learned I can pull a tire out of the river.  I can deal with the stench long enough to get the thing in my canoe.  I can feel good standing next to a stack of tires at the end of a float knowing there is a cleaner section of river left behind.

Other people have other ideas about what ‘cleaning’ the river means which I abruptly discovered just a few miles farther down.

Bone Hole Part 2

Bone Hole is such an interesting anomaly.

Confession: in my last position I was working on behalf of my company (who shall remain nameless to hopefully keep me from ever being pursued by there legal dept) to help St. Francois County turn Bone Hole into a county park, along with the EPA, USFWS, and a little less so from MDNR & the City of Desloge.  As I said before, Bone Hole sits adjacent to the SFCEC, St. Francois Cty Environmental Corp. (county landfill) placing layers of ‘bio solids’ on top of an old mine tailings impoundment.

The concept was a noble one for Bone Hole, take what is potentially the most dangerous locale in the county and turn it into such a wonderful historic heritage & ecological site that any family would consider it a great place to go for a pleasant Sunday afternoon.  The amenities are so engaging, it is not only easy to envision this happening, I could see it struggle from being too popular.

Like any project, it is the mover ‘behind’ the project that is often fascinating.  In this case that ‘mover’ would be Dr. David Cramp, recently retired Presiding County Commissioner.  He is still involved, but obviously it will take the will of the existing county commissioners to have th is follow thru into the vision that has emerged in the design process.  Dr. Cramp is a great man, and I do hope it is a project that happens sooner than later.  He doesn’t need more of a legacy of service to the county, but it would be a fitting reward to his patient shepherding of the project.


imageA few years from now, look for it, ‘the Dr. David Cramp St. Francois County Park’!!

in the meantime, if you venture over to see this gem of a site… Take out some trash for me, then take a nice deep breath, enjoy the scenery, feel the breeze and be renewed.