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Changing Course: One Man and a Wheelbarrow
by Lester Graham
Great Lakes Radio Consortium
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Chad Pregracke is on a campaign to clean up the nation's rivers. He's not pushing a public relations campaign; he's pushing a wheelbarrow. Each year he picks up hundreds of tons of trash along the Mississippi River and some of its tributaries.
In the last few years, Chad Pegracke has picked up more than 3,200 tires, 1,000 steel barrels, a Ford van, a 1936 International Harvester tractor, 186 refrigerators, porcelain toilets, and a lot of other junk. See more images.
(Photo: Lester Graham)

PULLING AN OVERSIZED john boat away from the shore, Pregracke cracks the throttle of the 90-horsepower Honda outboard motor. The motor, just as the boat, is donated. For four years in a row, Pregracke is cruising along the river shorelines and islands of the Mississippi. He's looking for trash, garbage that people have dumped in the river or that flood waters have carried away. When he spots a barrel, an old tire, or just debris, he pulls up to shore. He tears a few large donated plastic bags from a roll and starts picking up trash. He finds aerosol cans, plastic bottles, light bulbs, Styrofoam® - lots of Styrofoam® - cans of pesticides, jugs of anti-freeze. You you name it and Pregracke bags it up and throws it into the boat.

It's dirty work. He fights ankle-deep mud, mosquitoes, and the river's hazards. Pregracke would sink fast in the swirling, muddy current if he got caught under an old water heater as he tried to load it on the boat. The work is hard and Pregracke works long hours, seven days a week. And he works for no pay.

On an island in the Mississippi about 20 miles north of St. Louis, Pregracke takes a seat on a tree felled by a beaver. He's taking a break long enough to talk to a reporter who's tagged along. With a boyish grin, he just shrugs his shoulders when asked why he does it.

"I know it sounds strange, wanting to go out and pick garbage up on the river," Pregracke laughs, "but I really like doing it. I get to see the results and it just makes me feel good."

Although Pregracke is only 25, he's been working on this river for a decade. He worked as a commercial clam diver as a kid. Later he worked on the barges. He says throughout his entire life, he's been astounded by all the garbage he's seen along the shore. He wondered why no one did anything about it. Finally, it just got to be too much for him. He started calling government agencies, asking what could be done to clean up the river. He offered to help.
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"Their questions, after spending a couple of hours on the phone was like, ‘Who are you, kid? What garbage are you talking about?' and ‘No, we don't have any money for you'," Pregracke remembers.

Not getting any encouragement from state or federal agencies, Pregracke turned to the private sector. There, he was a little more fortunate. Now, he spends his winters recruiting sponsors and his summers picking up trash. The money is used to pay dumpster and landfill fees, to keep gas in the boat motors on his two boats and, this year, to keep a couple of donated barges moving.

For the first couple of years, to save money, Pregracke and his volunteer crew spent their nights in hammocks on the river islands. They've also slept on a houseboat Pregracke salvaged from the bottom of the Illinois River.

Sometimes Pregracke doesn't get home for months. This year he'll be home to monitor a community clean-up of the river, one of nine in river towns stretching from the Quad Cities to St. Louis. Pregracke says it sometimes gets lonely on the river, but he doesn't really mind it that much.

"I'm always in new towns. Always kind of the outsider or something, but it's fine. At least I'm in the town with a purpose. So I guess I'm pretty well received by the towns I'm in, but I really don't have any of my close friends or whatever to hang out with. I don't really think of it as sacrifice, I just think of it as what I do."

Pregracke has been doing a lot. In the last few years, he's picked up more than 3,200 tires, 1,000 steel barrels, a Ford van, a 1936 International Harvester tractor, 186 refrigerators, porcelain toilets, and a lot of other junk. Everything, including dozens of kitchen sinks.

The Great Lakes Radio Consortium is a news service committed to revealing the relationship between the natural world and the everyday lives of people in the Great Lakes region.

Listen to these additional stories about the Mississippi:

Impacts of the '93 flood.

Mississippi River initiative
Chad Pregracke looks to towns along the rivers to help. For example, he spent a lot of time in the river town of Grafton, Illinois at the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers. Grafton helped Pregracke, giving him a place to park his boats and a place to temporarily store the trash he hauled in.

Bobbie Amburg, the mayor of Grafton, says at first she wasn't so sure about Pregracke.

"I thought he was nuts," Amburg chuckled. "But, he was so full of life and so full of energy, you had to say, 'Well, maybe he can do it, maybe he can't. I'll sit back and watch.' And, when I saw that trash coming in, I was just amazed at the amount that he could pull out of the river."

Mayor Amburg says the next year when Pregracke called, she didn't hesitate to offer the town's help.

"I don't know how a man his age could be that responsible as to take on the job of cleaning up the rivers the way he has. I wish there was more young people out there, like him wanting to do the same thing," Amburg said.

Mayor Amburg is not the only one praising Chad Pregracke. He's been recognized by Vice President Al Gore, rock singer Lenny Kravitz wrote a song about Pregracke's work, he's been featured in several national television news broadcasts and was featured in a recent issue of Time magazine. The environmental group American Rivers applauds the work Pregracke is doing.

"He's making a super-human effort to clean that kind of pollution out of our Mississippi River," says Jeff Stein, American Rivers' Mississippi River representative. "But I think more importantly, what it really is doing is it's showing how individuals can make a contribution to the river and its cleanliness and its health."

Pregracke has cleaned up the Mississippi from as far north as Guttenberg, Iowa south to St. Louis, Missouri. Last year he also cleaned a 273-mile stretch of the Illinois River.

In his wake, Pregracke is trying to organize local adopt-a-waterway crews to help keep the rivers clean after he's passed through. More information about Pregracke's program can be found on the Internet at

Pregracke says he's enthusiastic about the number of people who've helped, but the job seems to never end. Then, smiling, Pregracke grabs his trash bag and invites the reporter to lend a hand.

Next: The Sins of Pig's Eye