By Michele Devlin and Mark Grey
After spending a muddy day on the Cedar River with Project Aware this July, our enthusiastic “takeaway” observation was that this annual week long floating event was just like RAGBRAI on water, but with a valuable environmental service project added. As avid RAGBRAI riders who can’t get enough of the yearly scenery, festivities, and teamwork of a week-long bicycle camping trip across the state with 20,000 of our closest friends, we were thrilled to have the opportunity to join this year’s Project Aware, “a Watershed Awareness River Expedition,” in northeast Iowa.
Sponsored by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and now in its 15th summer, this year’s river expedition featured a record 480 people canoeing, kayaking, and camping over 50 miles in 5 days down the Cedar River through Mitchell and Floyd Counties in northeast Iowa. Participants ranged from young children to seniors and families. Each day, coordinators would provide a safety briefing around 8;00 am, and then a virtual U.S. Naval flotilla of excited, motivated paddlers would take off on the day’s river journey, which could range from 4 miles to 17 miles. Along the way, ever vigilant Project Aware paddlers would use buckets and mesh sacks provided by the DNR to eagerly pick up debris along the river that typically got stuck along roots, trees, or sandbars after flooding, disasters, or illegal dumping. The sheer variety and amount of debris collected was overwhelming and even bizarre at times, reminiscent of scenes out of an apocalyptic dystopian Mad Max movie, and included old tires, rusty barrels, barbed wire, shoes, pipes, and other human cultural artifacts covered in mud and river goo.
The Project Aware route changes annually, and follows a different river in Iowa for one week each July. Just like a RAGBRAI bicycle route, each day of paddling has a half-way and ending point through some of the most beautiful rivers in the state, where eager staff members empty the canoes and kayaks of their mucky debris and carry the participants’ gear to the site of the next day’s float. By the end of the week, participants have traditionally collected a mind-boggling 40 tons or more of junk, with over 75% of it able to be recycled on-site in huge mobile collection bins at stops along the river.
Project Aware volunteers only pay a small registration cost for the highly coveted opportunity to get really dirty on a floating environmental health mission, and this covers delicious hot meals and sack lunches, group camping sites in the woods, shuttles to hot showers in the evenings, entertainment, and other options. Music, conservation programs, natural history lectures, and/or field trips are provided every afternoon and evening as paddlers finish for the day, and even members of the public are invited to these open events to learn more about Iowa’s rivers and watershed conservation projects. Convenient shuttles connect participants back to various starting points along the river, as well as to big cities like Des Moines and Iowa City. Like RAGBRAI, participants can join the river expedition for one day, the whole week, or just a few hours. Those that would prefer to be part of the mission by volunteering on land are also welcome, and can help with the recycling and sorting of debris as the canoes come in each day with their mucky deliveries. Most importantly, participants do not even need to bring their own canoes, kayaks, or safety equipment, as Project Aware can provide that daily to volunteers upon prior arrangement.
We found Project Aware to be a highly enjoyable, super fun, and memorable outdoor adventure, and the camaraderie with fellow messy outdoor enthusiasts is hard to beat. As two people who participate in medical missions around the world in distant locations as part of our day jobs, we continue to be amazed how remote, empty, and truly wild many of the wooded greenbelts are along Iowa’s rivers, and how stunningly beautiful and accessible they are only to paddlers. The idea of canoeing along Iowa’s watershed wilderness areas while helping protect these fragile zones on an environmental service expedition adds to the importance of this muddy, wet adventure. We look forward to making the Project Aware River Expedition our new tradition every July on canoes, before taking off on land with our bikes for RAGBRAI later in the month!
For more information on how to be part of this increasingly popular, close-to-home, family-friendly river expedition and environmental service mission, please go to http://www.iowadnr.gov/Things-to-Do/Canoeing-Kayaking/Project-AWARE.