I am a 78 year old retired dentist. When I retired in 1999, I paddled rivers in NW Michigan and I saw a serious need for river cleanups. I decided to do something about it (with American River’s help). I started and lead the Boardman River Clean Sweep in Traverse City Michigan.

For many years, I paddled and fished a little here in NW Lower Michigan, but once I retired, I was able to get out on the river much more often. The rivers were in really bad condition. There was trash everywhere I looked, in every eddy, log jam, lily pad, at every landing, and along every shoreline.

One day in 1997, I was out paddling with friends and I was picking up trash which made me slower than the rest of the group. At the end, the young gal leading the trip was waiting at the takeout. She was quite upset with me. After all, I was 58 years old. She was worried about me, wondering how she would report my drowning, AND upset that I had made her wait for 30 minutes (not in that order). She said, “If you want to do river cleanups, get a group together and do it on your own time, not mine.”  That seemed like a great idea.

A small group of us did some one-off river cleanups and it was hard work. There was so much to take out; tires, docks, picnic tables, you name it. As more and more people got interested in river cleanups, getting volunteers became easier and easier. I tried to make the trips fun, so they wouldn’t seem like work.  We would have 15 item cleanups, where you only had to remove 15 items. Ten people at 15 items each is 150 items, which is a significant amount of trash removed from the river. Year after year, the rivers got cleaner and cleaner.

We discovered American River’s National River Cleanup project and they have provided us with their great little bags that are exactly the right size and very tough and durable. Being a partner with American Rivers has given us some credibility locally and statewide.

I had an idea for a multi-section river cleanup. In 2005, we had an experimental project called the BRCS to see if anyone would come. It was a four section cleanup on the Boardman River, three upstream sections and one downstream. I was only expecting about eight people to show up, but to my surprise 80 arrived. Man was I shocked! This quickly became an annual event. 12 years later, the Boardman River Clean Sweep (BRCS) is a 501(c3) with five canoes, lots of life vests, four kayaks, two trailers, dozens of grabbers, throw bags, marine radios, and hundreds of volunteers. No one could have predicted our success.

The same young gal, now retired, who complained so much about my tardiness at the takeout is leading many cleanups herself. She is only surpassed by me in the number of cleanups, but she’s gaining on me.

Now, with the exception of a flood, we no longer find tires, docks, or picnic tables.  We only find things that people lose when they flip accidentally, like shoes, drink cans (both full and empty), glass bottles, wallets, keys, plastic water bottles (full and empty), fishing rods, etc. Through this we have discovered that once a river is clean, it tends to stay clean (except for the accidental trash that finds its way in).

We have expanded our efforts to cleaning 18 different rivers, but our greatest achievement is that we have fostered eight different out-state groups who clean their local rivers without us. When they have their big events, we go and volunteer for them like they volunteered for us when we first led the efforts on their rivers. Our goal is to get more local support for cleaning rivers other than the Boardman River here in Traverse City, Michigan.

But until there is more local support for the out-of-state cleanups, we will continue to travel to other towns and cities to continue the work of keeping our NW Lower Michigan rivers running clean, cold and beautiful.

We thank American Rivers for their much needed support and encouragement.

Norm Fred