From the Bottom Up

Article excerpt

From the Bottom Up by Chad Pregracke with JeJf Barrow, National Geographic Society, 320 pages, $26.00

In 1997, an Illinois teenager set out in an old flatboat on a self-appointed mission to clean up the Mississippi River. Ten years later, Chad Pregracke is still at it, dragging everything from old tires and rusting containers to mattresses, refrigerators and abandoned wrecks from the river's muddy banks. Only nowadays he works with a fleet of river barges, a tugboat, and volunteers from around the country, plus a $600,000 budget. To date, Pregracke's Living Lands and Rivers foundation has pulled some two million pounds of trash from the Mississippi and other major U.S. rivers, all at zero cost to taxpayers, and now it is embarking on a new project to grow and plant a million hardwood trees to lure wildlife back to the riverbanks.

A new book, From the Bottom Up: One Man's Crusade to Clean America's Rivers, tells Pregracke's story-how an unknown river town boy who prefers to be called "dude," has no political leanings, and doesn't like being termed an environmentalist forged one of the most effective river conservation projects in American history.

In this first-person account with cowriter Jeff Barrows, Pregracke relates his growing disgust for the accumulated garbage he saw everywhere as a youth while camping and shell diving on the river. One day at age 19, while motoring home with a load of clams, he came upon a particularly incongruous sight, a 60-foot yacht with people having cocktails on deck moored right next to a large, unsightly pile of rusty barrels. That was Pregracke's moment of decision. "The contrast between the beauty of the river and its ugly burden of trash became crystal clear to me," he writes. "If nobody else was going to do anything about the trashing of the Mississippi River, then I would do something."

Starting out only with a telephone book and his customary opening line ("I'm Chad Pregracke, and I want to clean up the Mississippi River"), the long-haired teen began calling government agencies. After months of effort, he was able to accumulate exactly zero support. Then one day while watching a NASCAR race, Pregracke had an epiphany. Corporate sponsorship was the answer. Starting with the A's in the phone book, he began calling corporations. He found just one that was willing to help, but it was all he needed. With a modest grant from the Alcoa Company (covering only his expenses) and with some cobbled-together equipment he set out by himself for a year cleaning the river. Then the media discovered him, and soon he was getting letters of support from people all over the world.

In an adventure that makes Huckleberry Finn's look like a walk in the park, Pregracke tells of sinking boats, harrowing near-collisions, life-threatening drives through pitch darkness and freezing waters, stolen equipment, and a run-in with one particularly spiteful game warden. Pregracke and his cleanup crews slept in cramped quarters in a houseboat borrowed from his brother. They worked long, grueling hours wrestling almost every conceivable object from the river: bathtubs, bicycles, portable toilets, couches, stoves, toilets, air conditioners, a piano, an unleaded gas pump, a 1950s International Harvester truck. Sometimes strange items were found: notes in bottles, for example, and on one occasion a worker pulled a human skull from the riverbank. Police detectives traced the remains to a 19-year-old boy who had committed suicide jumping from a bridge upstream. The boy's mother came to hug and thank the crew for finding her son.

Eventually, Pregracke extended his operations to other Midwest rivers, including the Ohio, where so much junk was floating in the waters, his crew had only to moor in the stream and snag the trash as it came down to them. …