Announcing the 2015 Photo Contest Winner!

Thanks to all the organizers and volunteers who spent time cleaning up our nation’s waterways in 2015, and a special thanks to those who submitted their cleanup photos for the 2015 National River Cleanup Photo Contest! This year’s contest saw some impressive submissions as well as a tremendous number of votes (over 1,500!).

Congratulations to the Montreal River Cleanup for winning the 2015 National River Cleanup Photo Contest with a whopping 688 votes! I asked Rob Hanson, the photographer and a volunteer at the cleanup, to share this cleanup and this photo’s story.

Montreal-River-Cleanup-in-Ironwood-MI--Rob-Hanson2015 National River Cleanup Photo Contest winner: Rob Hanson’s photo from the Montreal River Cleanup in Ironwood, MI

These days, the Montreal River is known to most as the dividing line between Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan at the northernmost portion of the border, as well as a tributary of Lake Superior.

As the main branch of the river etches its way down from a man-made impoundment called the Gile Flowage, it splits the towns of Hurley and Ironwood and provides fishing and paddling opportunities for residents of both states. Near the source, anglers enjoy quality muskie, walleye and bass fishing, while at the mouth — after tumbling dramatically over the steep red rocks of Superior Falls  — coho salmon, steelhead, brown trout and other salmonids return from the depths of Gitche-gumee each fall for their spawning ritual.

In centuries past, the Montreal was also an important source of food, water and transportation for various groups of people, including original inhabitants of the area, the Ojibwa tribe, as well as the French fur traders who gave the river its name.

But despite its cultural importance in the Great Lakes Region, like so many other rivers around the country, the Montreal became a dumping ground over the years for everything from daily household trash to tires to appliances.

Throughout 2015, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service led a clean-up effort with the help of community groups that included the University of Wisconsin Extension of Iron County, City of Ironwood Parks and Recreation Committee, Iron County Land & Water Conservation Department, the Town of Kimball, Super One Foods and the local Whitecap Kayak.

Around 20 people attended an August 22nd event and removed 1,440 pounds of garbage — 1,180 pounds of scrap metal and 73 tires — in only a small downtown stretch of the river. Two additional cleanup events that summer yielded another 4,700 pounds and 30 tires, bringing the grand total to 10,330 pounds of junk hauled from the river. One little river, and literally five tons of garbage.

Much of the trash found in the river was the expected daily items – cans, bottles and cigarette butts. However, other items were dumbfounding — an incredibly heavy hydraulic lift, three bicycles, a fully intact dog skeleton, and carbonation tanks used for commercial soft drink machines. But in the end it was not the strange items that caught volunteers’ attention; it was the vast quantity of items. This became ever more apparent for the individuals helping out as the sweat started to build in their waders after one canoe load of garbage turned into two, turned into three, turned into a half-dozen.

The photo that was selected as the winner in the American Rivers’ National River Cleanup photo contest shows organizer Zach Wilson of the Iron County Land & Water Conservation Department, riding just one of those canoe-loads of garbage to a take-out point at the August cleanup.

“There was trash aging from the 1940s to 2015,” he said. “My favorite was an old mining cart yoke. The Montreal is a river with deep roots dating back to the Native Americans, voyageurs…and now trout fisherman and kayakers. It deserves respect and attention. Let’s keep our waters clean.”

I left a nearly decade-long career in journalism three years ago to work in conservation, first for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and more recently as a fisheries technician for the Ottawa National Forest. My primary reason for leaving a full-time job for seasonal field work was the desire to get out and actually make a difference in the natural world, instead of just writing about the people who do. This cleanup was a perfect affirmation of that choice —as  there is so much to be done, few who are willing to do it and even fewer dollars to make it happen.

Two things really struck me on the day of the cleanup. The first was that Zach, in all his Northwoods hardiness, chose not to wear waders as you can see in the photo. After we started pulling trash from the river, my overly-paranoid side was looking at it as a tetanus nightmare and imagining a rusted bicycle spoke stabbing Zach in the shin as he walked downstream. So you can imagine my horror as we rounded a bend in the river and found two young children playing in a shallow spot near the river bank, laughing and throwing rocks into the water. With the river in their backyard, I’m sure those kids are in its waters all the time and haven’t suffered poisoning or substantial injury. But at the time it was a very poignant reminder of just how polluted some of our rivers are and who it really affects.

Another takeaway from this cleanup event seemed to be the ever-increasing need for conservationists to tackle human issues as a means of accomplishing environmental goals. For example, both Iron County, WI and Gogebic County, MI — which flank the Montreal River on both sides — are the poorest counties in their respective states. And while some people will always, for whatever reason, disregard the beauty and innate importance of their natural resources, a large chunk of the trash in that river can be attributed directly to poverty. For communities that have shrunk substantially since the heyday of iron mining and lack jobs that provide living wages, even the small fee to dispose of a tire can be a burden for some people to do the right thing.

That is in part why events like the Montreal River cleanup are so special. The Montreal does not fall within the confines of the Ottawa National Forest and therefore, the Forest Service has no direct responsibility to care for it. However, it only took one person who is passionate about serving his community — Forest Service botanist Ian Shackleford — to write the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grant that funded clean up and rallied local community groups to make good things happen. In many ways it created a snowball effect by not only showing people they can make a difference in their community, but also by connecting those people across social, political and other boundaries and giving them the means to do so for the future.

Congratulations to Ian for putting together such a successful event, and to all of those across the country who shed light on the state of our rivers via photos in the American Rivers National River Cleanup Photo Contest. And most of all, thank you to all the volunteers for taking the time out of your day to do good in the world around you.

-Rob Hanson

Congratulations again to the Montreal River Cleanup and a big thank you to all those that held a river cleanup in 2015! It’s time to start planning your river cleanup for NRC’s 25th Anniversary in 2016! Register with National River Cleanup here and use our Organizer’s Handbook for a step-by-step guide to organizing your event!

3 Responses to “Announcing the 2015 Photo Contest Winner!”

Jonathan Bader

Great article on stewardship of our nation’s river. Congratulations to all who worked in their communities to keep our rivers pristine.

Particularly interesting observation that the high poverty in the area near the Montreal River may be contributing to its use by some as a place to dispose of trash & garbage. Obviously it points to the value in communities NOT charging citizens who drop off garbage & trash at collection centers since it creates a financial penalty for those who act responsibly. Can we find another way to pay site management costs?

(One fact-check comment: Iron Co., while indeed very poor, isn’t the poorest WI Co. That unfortunate title goes to Menominee Co. with the highest rate of poverty and lowest median household income by far.)

Ruth Leverson

Congratulations! Lot of work but so worth it. Proud of all of you.

Valerie Nordin

I am proud of this initiative in northern Wisconsin.This is wonderful to see all the volunteer work. By the way Zach is a former student of mine. Proud of you Zach.