Tire Trash Treasure Phenomenon

posted by Guest Blogger on Friday, July 29, 2022

I have made a discovery. One of universal joy for an unusual subset of people. It rolls like this: find tire, extract tire, smile with tire, celebrate, go find another tire. I have a complicated relationship with tires. Apparently, I am not the only one. Welcome to Iowa Project AWARE: A Watershed Awareness River Expedition.

The elusive tire trash treasure smiles from Raina Henze and Francesca Dalla Betta

The elusive tire trash treasure smiles from Raina Henze and Francesca Dalla Betta. Photo by John Wenck.

Iowa Project AWARE just hit the West Fork of the Des Moines River July 10-15: 4.5 days cleaning 61.4 river miles from the Petersburg Access in Minnesota to the River Runner Access in West Bend, Iowa. An average of 200 paddlers spent 6 hours a day enjoying the water that brings life to the people and the land.  200 people x 6 hours = 1200 hours a day cleaning up the river!!!!! Multiply that by 4.5 days and the whopping 5,400 hours of labor and love lifts our hearts like a tire trapped in a log jam that suddenly pops up after being danced upon by a determined tire trash treasure seeker. In addition to that effort, there’s the "staff" volunteers in orange shirts that work the ramp, the sorting, the hauling, the lifting, the feeding, the registration, the education programs each night, and the safety briefs every morning. In this giant community of love for our rivers, the grandest most beautiful gift of all is the children growing up surrounded by this outpouring of generosity. These children are being carefully trained to wrangle tires, corral refrigerators and pry debris all from the river.

Day 1:

Red sky dawn. Our camp is on a glacial lake carved by a giant rake of ice and boulders, shallow depressions left in its wake, filled with the water of life. Pelicans, cormorants wake into flight. Swallows, crows, turkey vultures all lifting. It’s 5:30 AM on the first morning of Iowa Project AWARE. Coffee is momentarily steaming in my cup. The canoes are sparkling clean. Our muscles are fresh. I am enjoying the sights and sounds of dawn from a dock at Wolden County Park in Emmet County ready to stretch, anticipating the first full day. Staff meeting at 6 AM to go over the days logistics of unloading 100 canoes, shuttling snacks to the midway, gathering paddles and buckets, and filling water coolers for 200 tire trash treasure seekers.

The night before, every volunteer, including staff volunteers, introduced themselves by way of stating how many years they have participated in AWARE and identifying their watershed. I was immediately struck with a bolt of joy realizing that as a community, we are growing children into adults with a conservation ethic. Iowa Project AWARE is in its 19th year. Children are growing up on the rivers of Iowa; caring, connecting, committing their positive energy to the river family.

 Kaiya Petersen, age 16, AWARE 5 years with Macailah Jacobsen, age 14, AWARE 12 years! 

 Left to right:  Kaiya Petersen, age 16, AWARE 5 years with Macailah Jacobsen, age 14, AWARE 12 years!

Day 2:

So many stories are created everyday on the river and it isn’t until the boats come in that the stories unfold in the telling. My favorite story of the day was the extraction of a massive mostly buried tractor tire brought in by Ryan Ceynar (age 21, AWARE 13 years) and Brian Soenen with two others on a canoe-maran. This is how the biggest stuff is safely paddled down the river. It took them almost an hour to dig the tire out.

Day 3:

My canoe was filled within the first hour by Ryan and a gang of other people who were gently guiding legacy trash out of the banks and into canoes. The hood of a car, two refrigerators, and loads of metal were ferried downstream.

Ryan and Grace Ceynar (Age 18, AWARE 13 years)

Ryan and Grace Ceynar (Age 18, AWARE 13 years).

Later in the day, Jamie and I saw a refrigerator hung up on the tip of a log jam. We paddled around the jam and came up from the downstream side. We were able to climb out onto the tree and I shoved it off with my legs. It bobbed its lopsided rusty self down the river for 2 miles to the take out corralled by Rod, Jamie and I. We wanted to make sure it didn’t get distracted by any more log jams.

Day 4:

So many great memories from this day! It was a big day full of heavy trash. At the very end of the day, the Conservation Corps of Minnesota and Iowa plus Green Iowa Americorps volunteers had fully bonded into a team. I caught the moment on camera! These incredible volunteers worked hard everyday loading and unloading boats and emptying the heavy loads of garbage gathered from the river.

Conservation Corps of Minnesota and Iowa plus Green Iowa Americorps volunteered as staff

Conservation Corps of Minnesota and Iowa plus Green Iowa Americorps volunteered as staff. Back left to right: Blake Eilers, Ben Brehm Stecher, Francesca Dalla Betta, Raina Henze, James Partridge III, Maren Cooper. In front: Natalie Schwarz.

 Other fine memories include an extreme tire adventure and a moment of pride. While waiting for paddlers to reach the midpoint, I began cleaning up the banks of the river from the shore. Suddenly I heard Francesca Dalla Betta yell with delight that she had found a tire but it was caught in a mat of logs floating in the middle of the river. She wasn’t sure she could get it. I yelled across and asked if it had a rim. Yes. This means it will float once extracted and could be bumped downstream to a safer loading location along the bank. Her paddle partner, Raina Henze, held onto the log while Francesca straddled both boat and tire, eventually climbing out altogether and dancing on the tire, jumping up and down to wiggle it free. With her weight no longer in the canoe, her partner struggled to stay in one place, the canoe gradually moving away from Francesca. But her efforts worked! That tire bobbed up so fast that Francesca fell into the river and floated with the tire downstream. She held onto the tire to keep it from floating away and kicked like mad to get to shore where the canoe was ready to catch her. I watched the whole drama unfold, the only witness, ready to run and call for help if needed and cheer the mighty muddy duo when all was well. FYI all volunteers wear life jackets!

Raina Henze and Francesca Dalla Betta with their tire trash treasure

Raina Henze and Francesca Dalla Betta with their tire trash treasure. Photo by John Wenck.

The moment of pride came watching Evelyn Shawda ( age 14, AWARE 6 years), helping some grown newbie men try to extract a piece of metal from the bank. She knew exactly what to do and what tools were needed. Not surprising since her mother can always be counted on for excellent tools and great trash extracting advice. I was struck again with appreciation for this awesome transfer of care, energy and knowledge from parent to child, from an entire river community, from generation to generation. The kids and grandkids of Project AWARE veterans are becoming young adults, ready to care for the rivers of Iowa.

Day 5:

The last day I made an effort to capture the elusive tire trash treasure smiles. I first came upon Lucas and Ainsley Marso. Lucas had found a tire and he needed some help. They had both forgotten their gloves so I offered to bring the tire to their boat. Such proud faces!

 Lucas Marso and Ainsley Marso at Project AWARE

Here is Lucas Marso and Ainsley Marso with their ultimate trash treasure: a tire.

The next adventure included witnessing long time veteran Jim Dodd and his granddaughter Bailey Dodd (age 15, AWARE 3 years) problem solve how to safely extract the tire from the log jam. She got it done by sitting on the log and lifting it up and over, right into the canoe. So awesome!

Bailey Dodd and Jim Dodd at Project AWARE

Bailey Dodd shines her winning smile from a successful tire hunt with her beaming grandpa, Jim Dodd.

My final giggle of the day was at the takeout. Upon arrival I was asked if I had found a tractor tire and taken it back upstream. No, it wasn’t me! Turns out it was Evelyn Shawda. Her voice must sound like mine because the launch staff thought is was me calling out the tire and paddling back upstream. They were ready to yell mischievously, “Laura, no, you’re supposed to go DOWNSTREAM!! Haven’t we trained you better?” Ahh, well, I am untrainable, kind of like a cat. The real story goes like this. Evelyn had launched with Jeff White and spotted a tractor tire in the first 1/4 mile. Once removed they and 2 other young paddlers, took it back upstream and handed it off to staff before setting out again.

Canoemaran in action: Evelyn Shawda (blue hat) and Jeff White with the tractor tire. Thor and Dane Hoogeveen assisted as well

Canoemaran in action: Evelyn Shawda (blue hat) and Jeff White with the tractor tire. Thor and Dane Hoogeveen assisted as well. Photo by John Wenck.

I feel so grateful to be a part of this effort. Our future belongs to our children, our grandchildren. Hope is the balm that soothes so many wounds. Of the 348 volunteers, 157 were 25 years or younger and 96 were 18 years or younger. Thank you to every parent and grandparent on Iowa Project AWARE that has inspired their children and grandchildren to become environmental stewards and grow as leaders, ready to forge a healthier future for Iowa’s rivers and streams.

If you would like to see more photos of canoes loaded with insane amounts of metal, tires and garbage visit the Iowa Project AWARE Facebook page or website at iowaprojectaware.org! Your mind might be blown away by what we can float down a river! And so many tire trash treasure smiles too from so many young people.

loaded scrap metal trailers filled by Iowa Project AWARE volunteers

Of the 18.6 tons of trash removed from the river, only 2.1 tons had to be landfilled. 10.7 tons of the trash was scrap metal. Photo by Liz Maas

Dan Ceynar with all the rims removed thus far

A true labor of love. Dan Ceynar with all the rims removed thus far. 300 tires were removed from the river. Photo by Liz Maas.

Laura SemkenLaura Semken participated in her first Iowa Project AWARE in 2017 and has continued to clean up rivers ever since. After serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA for Missouri River Relief in 2019, she moved back to Southeast Iowa and continues to share her vision for river corridors teeming with life. Part of that vision includes reducing the waste that enters our rivers.

About The Author

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