Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Which picture do you prefer?

In this posting, there are two photos of the same place; it is the point at which Shingle Creek joins the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. It is a beautiful park. In one photo, there is a plastic shopping bag which has caught on a limb in the middle of Shingle Creek. The other photo is a shot of the same spot, but after this single eye-soar has been removed.

Click on one or both pictures to enlarge them. Sometimes, it’s good to visualize the difference between un-kept and well kept.

By the way, I received an email from Senator Ann Rest today, indicating that she will indeed introduce a plastic bag recycling bill in the current legislative session. Click here to read more details.

© 2009 Mike D. Anderson, Crystal, MN.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Letters of the law

Harsh winter weather can keep me off the rivers, but it need not slow our effort to protect them. Last summer, I decided to spend the off-season learning what I can about light pollution and those items we refer to as “floatables.” At face value, it may seem like there is not much to know about floating junk… but I’m devoted to understanding everything I can about where this trash originates, how it travels through the network of ditches and storm sewers, and the damage it does to wildlife, habitat and water quality. Common sense dictates that pollution prevention will be more effective where pollution problems are better understood.

Part of this learning process has involved the study of existing and proposed public policy. In that effort, I discovered legislation that was intended to help clean various waterways, or in some cases, bills that would help prevent lands and waters from becoming tarnished in the first place. The bills and regulations which have been considered are as varied as the places they are intended to protect.

Among these: The Clean Water, Land and Legacy Act, approved as a constitutional amendment by Minnesota voters last fall. (See this explanation offered by the DNR.) As you might imagine, I supported this amendment. At the same time, I fear an unintended consequence: That people may wrongly assume the problem is solved, just because we have thrown some money at it. A checkbook, alone, never removed one piece of debris from a waterway; it takes people who are prepared to get their hands dirty. That might mean attending to the street gutter out in front of their house, picking up some trash that lays on the ground next to a waste container, or even going down to the shoreline to pick up some crud.

Two other works deserved attention last year but did not receive such strong attention in the media, both having to do with important matters of pollution prevention. One of these was a “bottle bill” (as they are commonly called), introduced in the House by Representative Melissa Hortman, and intended to extend the recycling efforts of companies who produce or sell plastic bottles. Another measure, introduced by Senator Ellen Anderson, would have placed a similar mandate on companies who produce or distribute plastic bags (like those used when you carry groceries out of the supermarket).

Neither of these proposals matured into law during the last legislative session. But last week, I wrote to both Representative Hortman and Senator Anderson, encouraging the resurrection of these measures. The final wording or detail of these statutes is beyond my expertise… but the essence of both bills was to make the people who produce (and profit from) these materials more accountable as to their final disposal, and encourage them to engage the public on the methods and benefits of recycling.

Plastic bags and bottles have two things in common, as far as I am concerned. First, they were both garbage on the day they were born; the manufacturer knows these items to be generally of single-use, and that they are headed for a landfill (or worse) after only a momentary stop in the hands of a consumer. Secondly, these items constitute the vast majority of “floatables” that we see on every trip down the river; they degrade, but do not decompose; and they will thus tarnish the landscape or waterway until such time as someone picks them up.

More effective measures to recycle these products would do the river a world of good.

Now, rather than go on any further about these two measures here, I have devoted more space to this conversation at our sister site, DisposeOfProperly.com. At that site, you'll see more discussion on these two proposals, and you can read the actual letters I sent to Senator Anderson and Representative Hortman.

While I want to avoid having CleanUpTheRiver.com become a political pulpit, there are times when public policy and water quality are inextricably linked. And when it becomes both logical and necessary to share that conversation with you here, I will.

Let me close this post by saying it is not my goal to impose a single-sided opinion. If you would like to join the conversation, or challenge any assertion I have made here… I invite your emailed point of view, and will enthusiastically build it into my online conversation. Just drop me a note.

© 2009, Mike D. Anderson. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A renewed focus on floatables

One recurring question accompanies every summertime trip to the metro Mississippi River: Where is all this trash coming from? I’m not talking about the large scale objects that have been blatantly “dumped.” That stuff comes from people who suffer from both ignorance and apathy.

I’m talking about the floatables: The glass and plastic bottles that held beer, water, soft drinks or sport drinks; the plastic “fountain cups” that came from a fast food restaurant, coffee shop or gas station convenience store; the Styrofoam cups and bait containers; the plastic bags that held a loaf of bread or carton of milk from the neighborhood grocer or supermarket. These are floatables I have written about before, at DisposeOfProperly.com. (See “We’ll have to pay for our plastics,” and “Sacking one source of pollution.”)

Where does all this trash come from? Well, after paddling just past the many spillways that drain our streets of rain and snow runoff, you start to notice a pattern. There is consistently a debris field just downstream of many of those spillways. It doesn’t take long to realize that much of this trash is delivered to the river systematically… from your friendly neighborhood storm sewer.

Prevention is the best cure.
It does not take a rocket surgeon to realize that if we could stop more stuff from hitting the sewers, we could prevent a lot of this crud from hitting the river. So, this winter, I have begun a campaign that involves educating myself about various options. I’ve been in touch with Dan Kalmon from the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization (http://www.mwmo.org/), as well as Lois Eberhart, the Surface Water & Sewers Administrator for the City of Minneapolis Department of Public Works. Also, I had a chance to sit-down with Tim P. Brown, the Environmental Operations Manager for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (the MPRB owns much of the land along our adopted section of the Mississippi River, where this trash is most pervasive).

With each conversation, I have learned more about the politics of water management, the mechanics of storm sewer runoff, and the dynamics of how debris flows into the river from across the watershed. These are important alliances, because these people have the capacity to help me alleviate ignorance and develop some wonderful prevention ideas.

During one of these conversations, Dan Kalmon made a simple but profound remark to sum-up what I was telling him about my passion for prevention: “Every street is a tributary,” Dan said. I’ll be using that line a lot… and I’ll probably tell people I came up with it.

Thanks, Dan, Lois and Tim.... for sharing your intelligence. I know that I'm going to learn a lot (more) from you folks. And of course, I'll share that knowledge as best I can, right here.

© 2009 Mike D. Anderson, Crystal, MN.

Still over a barrel

As I mentioned last time, the river was not stable enough to risk chasing that barrel which rests on the St. Croix River near Osceola. We thought about trying again on Sunday, but open water warned us against the idea, even after the deep cold we had last week.

Better safe than stupid.

It’s only a matter of time. Perhaps the ice will eventually give us a bridge sufficient to walk down to the drum; we’re supposed to get sub-zero temperatures again this weekend. If not, I’ve devised another plan to recover the item—via solo canoe—after the ice thaws this spring.

But more on that later.

© 2009 Mike D. Anderson, Crystal, MN.

Monday, January 5, 2009

You're on thin ice, my friend

If you will just listen, the river will often whisper a warning... if and when risk is at hand.

On New Year’s Day, Julie and I set-out to recover that blue drum that sits in a log jam south of the Osceola bridge. This is the barrel brought to my attention by Lisa at the St. Croix River Association; her group had discovered it while on a general clean-up voyage back in July. It eluded our capture when Julie and I were kayaking back in late October, due to the quickly setting sun and the fact that we still had more than a mile of paddling ahead of us (against the current).

My strategy—and I think it remains a good one—was to walk 1.2 miles from Osceola Landing to where the barrel is resting; I had marked its location as a GPS waypoint. The most direct path would be over-water, leaving from the point at the southern end of Osceola Landing. From there, I would walk a straight line on the frozen river... or at least, on what I thought was a frozen river.

I was well equipped. Julie gave me a pair of Atlas snowshoes for my birthday last fall. They are designed for “trailing,” which means they are slightly more short and narrow than you might think... allowing easier navigation through woods and brush. They are also equipped with teeth… which bite into the ice both just under the ball of your feet, as well as beneath the heel. This Christmas, she upgraded my experience with a pair of North Face boots intended for snowshoeing. (With the right equipment, it has been easy to fall in love with winter hiking!)

Our kids were in on the gift theme, too, as they gave me a Petzl ice ax; I admit to dropping a hint or two about this tool… which is intended to help hikers and mountaineers “self arrest” when sliding down a steep slope. My use would be slightly different, but no less important. When a river freezes after the autumn rains, the water levels often fall… and the ice tends to sink in response. Thus, the ice at the center of a waterway can be several inches (or even feet) lower than the ice on the riverbank, creating a “slope” that draws a hiker from the shoreline out to the channel (not a place I choose to be, as the ice is often more dangerous out there). So, if/when gravity pulls me out in that direction, I can use the ax to arrest the slide. Also, if I found the barrel to be “iced-in” when I arrived, I could chip it out using the ax.

We took a few other precautions, too. I put a 15 foot length of rope on the sled; if I were to break through the ice, the sled far behind me would give responders something to grab hold of. With a two-way radio clipped into my collar pocket, I could call Julie back at the truck to summon such help. My son had provided me with some nail spikes which are designed to jam into the ice, allowing a hiker to pull him/herself out of the water onto the ice ledge, assuming the ice was strong enough to hold you. If not, there was always the ice ax—which would literally become an ice breaker—clipped to the belt of my cargo pants, where I could reach it easily. And most importantly, Julie was waiting for me back at the truck; she knew roughly my route, the time I expected to be back, and that I would check in along the way.

Even with all of this careful planning—and even with several sub-zero days of weather so far this winter—one could not take for granted that the mission would be successful. Nature gave me a number of clues as to the degree of risk involved with my venture.

First, there was open water visible just south of the bridge, in the middle of the river. That wasn’t a shock to me… as large structures and stumps tend to create a "wake" in the current just downstream. But my walk would start more than a quarter mile downstream… far from the obstruction of the bridge. And after all, the St. Croix is not all that deep where I would be walking (our kayaks have even bottomed-out on dunes near here during the summer). That having been said, I’m smart enough to know that there are deep spots, too (as deep as 14 feet in some spots along the path I would be walking). And with a windchill of about zero degrees right now, even three or four feet of water is too deep for me.

There is one other clue as to the risk: No paw or hoof prints. No rabbit, no fox, no deer… no footprints of any kind, anywhere beyond the solid ground of the shoreline. I find the lack of their presence on the ice to be a bit odd. (Sometimes, critters know things humans don't.)

I made my way to the southern tip of the peninsula, and cautiously started onto the ice. At first, my snowshoes create a fluffing sound as they drop into and then lift the fresh snow. But about forty yards offshore, I notice an audible change: Now, there is a snapping sound as my feet pierce the top surface of the snow… followed by a soft mush. Before, you could hear a crisp “bite” as the teeth on my snowshoes gripped the ice. But the those metal tips were penetrating something much softer now. After five or six steps, I stopped, turned around… and realized my most recent footprints have immediately filled with water, and the edges of those imprints were surrounded by fresh slush. Although I have only recently begun learning the art of snowshoeing, I know that while walking over a lake or river, one is wise to pay attention to the conditions by sound, as well as by sight. More importantly, I’ve spent enough time on this river and living through extreme winters... to know that challenging either is a fool’s game. So, I changed paths… opting for to hug the shoreline. But even then, several hundred yards to the south, I discovered more open water. This day, the barrel will have to stay.

Going over ice to retrieve the drum is still a feasible idea, but one that is better saved until January has brought several more deep freezes. The recent cold temperatures have been off-set by the fact that the St. Croix River is heavily fed by spring water. These springs have a moderating effect, cooling the flow in summer, but warming it in winter. Further, the heavy December snows have had an insulating effect on the ice.

I have learned many things over the past few years, spending considerable time on the river. More than anything, I have learned respect… for how the beauty of a waterway like this can belie its power and danger. Even with all of the precautions I have taken in preparing for this day, the greatest measure of safety is having the good sense to call it a day. The river, like a true friend, gave me several warnings that I was on thin ice. Like a friend, I listened.

If you'd like a glimpse of winter on the St. Croix, indulge in the three and a half minute video below.

© 2009 Mike D. Anderson, Crystal, MN.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Riverside Inn & Tavern

Aunt Mary was legendary for her candor & common sense, and was proprietor of the Riverside Inn and Tavern in Woodland, Washington. We visited her during a family vacation when I was young… and the stunning beauty of the area has stayed with me since. Pine covered mountains, crisp air, and the crystal clear waters of the Lewis River, which flows here from Mount St. Helens, and then merges with the famed Columbia River just downstream.

Aunt Mary was locally famous for her beer-battered onion rings… and for the way she could tell a story, delivered in a compelling style with her booming, near-baritone voice (it sounded as if she was a bar-owning smoker). There was the time her fishing boat, motor and trailer went missing, stolen from the parking lot between the tavern and her house. About a week later, she noticed the equipment hitched to the back of a truck that was parked in the lot in front of the bar. Apparently, the thieves were drunk enough at the time of the robbery that they had forgotten where they had stolen the boat from… and now, they were throwing-back a few beers served by the very person from whom they had stolen it. Mary quietly called the police, the boat burglars were apprehended, and she had only to walk out the front door to retrieve her property.

Mary’s small house and bar were situated just across the road from the Lewis River. On one day, during our short visit, I wanted to cross the road and do some fishing; there were steelhead in The Lewis… a much more sporting fish than the catfish in the Red River back home. My mom was reluctant to give her permission, fearing for my safety. But she caved-in, eventually, after both dad and Aunt Mary convinced her it would be okay.

I climbed over the floodwall and started down the bank. Willing to get my shoes and pant legs wet, I was able to make my way out to one of two large rock formations in the middle of the river. The scene was breathtaking. Here was the crisp, rushing rapids and mountainous backdrop the likes of which I had only seen in an Outdoor Life magazine… and I was sitting in the middle of it all! I could see clear to the bottom of a 12 or 14 foot-deep eddy beneath the island. And although my gear was intended for spinning, I was able to catch one of those storied steelhead. Excited to share my success with everyone, I decided to run back to the house with my trophy!

But as I looked toward the riverbank where I had walked across the rocks, I realized that the rock formation I was standing on had now become an island. Unaware of my surroundings while I fished, the water had risen more than a couple of feet, covering the path I had taken to the rocks in the middle of the river. What was a gentle rapids only an hour or so earlier had become an angry, thunderous flow… powerful enough that anyone would be swept away who tried to cross it. I was half scared, half excited; this was exactly the kind of adventure many a young boy dreams of but few experience. How long would it be before my parents might notice I was overdue, and come to find me stranded in the middle of the raging river? Would the water that swallowed my path rise even further, submerging the island where I was stranded? If swept into the water, how far downstream would I be carried before my swimming brought me to shore?

I sat for a while, both fretting the danger and admiring the adventure I now faced. But as they say, all good things--even epic adventures like this--must come to an end. Less than an hour later, the river had receded, again exposing the route across the rocks that would take me safely to the shoreline. I gathered my fishing tackle and ran back to the house, eager to tell everyone of the thrill I had survived! The same story brought horror to the face of my mom (who would agree that she was always just a tad protective) brought a grin of admiration to the face of my dad (he could picture himself living the adventure).

And without pause, the recounting of my adventure drew an out-loud, belly-deep laugh from Aunt Mary. She explained that an old logger’s dam about ten miles upstream was opened up almost every day about the time I was stranded. (I was later told the actual name of the site is Merwin Dam.) She knew the rise in water was both predictable… and far from life-threatening. But she held back just enough of her knowledge about the managed flow of the river to let me retain the adventure of my new childhood memory.

This past fall, my company sent me on an assignment that involved working in both Seattle and Portland. To save expenses, I flew in an out of SeaTac, and rented a car for the Portland part of the trip. Driving back around six in the evening, I decided to pull off Interstate 5 to see if I could find the old haunt. Somehow, without an address or map to work with, I drove immediately to the site of the Riverside Inn & Tavern… not one wrong turn.

The place had run down a bit. It was lined with posters of 1980’s-era tv stars and pin-up models. And there was a “for sale” sign out front. The current owner was hoping to sell it and use the money for retirement, knowing both the house and tavern would likely be razed, and replaced by a McDonald’s, Starbuck’s, or some such ubiquitous establishment. Mary had sold the bar back around 1980--it has changed hands more than a few times since--and she passed away in 1983. The surrounding area has been developed into rows of condos and townhomes, in numbers sufficient to remind us that humanity is drawn to beautiful places along the river, and that a beautiful place can lose some of its natural serenity as a result.

Knowing this was likely to be my last trip to the Riverside Inn and Tavern as it now stands, I ordered a cheeseburger and onion rings. Even though the rings now come from the local Sam’s Club, they were sufficient to let me imagine Mary’s famous beer-batter coating. I convinced the proprietor to sell me a few shot glasses, that I might have something tangible to remember The Riverside by, even after the wooden walls and stone chimney are gone.

Then, I walked across the road, climbed over the floodwall, and sat by the Lewis River for a few moments. The Merwin Dam must be less active now; trees and shrubs have grown from the rock formations where I fished as a boy. But the waterway was no less spectacular than I remember.

Before walking back to the car for the drive north to catch my flight, I noticed a few bags of fast food trash sitting near the road… presumably tossed from cars traveling the road that is adjacent to the river.

I picked them up. In honor of Aunt Mary… and memories.

© 2008, 2009 Mike D. Anderson, Crystal, MN.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Happy Renew Year

Most of us approach a New Year with a feeling of optimism… like we’re starting with a clean slate. On the first day of this New Year, Julie and I drove down to Osceola Landing on the St. Croix River. Here, the landscape offered a visual reminder of the renewal that takes place every year at this time.

The fresh coat of snow sets a mood that is even more pristine than usual. The powder has a muffling effect, rendering the valley almost perfectly quiet, except for the faint sound of current moving beneath the ice. The jagged rocks on the face of a near-vertical ridge defy snow cover, and remind you of the landscape that sleeps under the flakes, waiting for spring, when it will awaken for another season of color.

We had hoped to recover a barrel that had evaded our grasp last fall… but turned back for reasons I’ll explain in another post. Still, the day was certainly not a lost cause. On the contrary, it served as another reminder of why the waterways deserve our protection, even as they sleep.

I looked back on the imprints left by my showshoes along the snow-covered shoreline; they were the only evidence that anyone or any thing had been here. And while I've walked this path before, the fresh snow, like a new year, left me feeling as if I was exploring it for the first time.

[Note: As always, you can click on any image to see an enlarged view of the photo. And you can share your input or feedback by dropping us an email.]

© 2009 Mike D. Anderson, Crystal, MN.