Project AWARE wraps up river cleanup, volunteers find car on the final day

Published: Jul. 15, 2018 at 9:26 PM CDT
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When Project Aware started in Iowa in 2003, it was described as a small group of 25 to 30 people doing what they can to clean up the local rivers. Fast forward to 2018, the feeling among the volunteers is similar to going to summer camp.

Volunteers wake up at their campsites and have some breakfast. Some volunteers participate for one day, some have been there the entire week. But what remains constant every morning, is when Brian Soenen, Project Coordinator for Iowa Project AWARE who has been involved since day one 15 years ago, gets on the loudspeaker for the morning announcements.

They bus their way to the Maquoketa River and head out in search of any trash or recyclables they can see.

For those involved like Soenen, he said itsurreal to see waves of people paddling down the river to collect whatever will fit in the canoe.

"New people will come out every year, and there's something magical," Soenen said. "I don't know what it is, but something that happens in the process of getting out in a boat, getting on the water with a couple hundred other friends, and working together with strangers that really makes this more than just a river cleanup."

Soenen said the main reason the project is successful every year is the community- with a strong willingness to spend a week out on the water, searching for things they can throw away or recycle.

With the support they received this year, Soenen said this year was one of their most successful yet- especially on the final day, where they happened to find a big surprise during their eight-mile expedition.

Waves of volunteers were paddling in their canoes down the river when they found something submerged underwater: a car.

Organizers said they used shovels and axes to cut the car into pieces, and then used ropes and cables to pull it out of the water.

Even prior to finding the car on their week on the river, Soenen said volunteers with the project had already found a lot of materials earlier in the week.

"So far, as through [the first three days], so that doesn't count Thursday's or Friday's numbers, we've collected over 200 tires and over 15,000 pounds of scrap metal," Soenen said.

Soenen said finding large, heavy items like a car on their searches is relatively common, and many volunteers come prepared for any challenge, no matter how heavy the item. When asked how a group of volunteers could chop up a car on their own and canoe it downriver to the exit point, Soenen responded: "Because they're amazing."

Organizers like Soenen say what makes the project so impactful is how much they are able to not just find, but recycle. He said the group is able to recycle three-fourths of the material they end up collecting.

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