Tommie Traditions: Fall Mississippi River Cleanup

A milestone cleanup

It goes without saying that most, if not all, members of the University of St. Thomas community count themselves fortunate to frequent one of the most beautiful locations in the Twin Cities. A setting that includes a bucolic stretch along the westernmost block of historic Summit Avenue, just steps from the Mississippi River bluff.

But that beauty has not come effortlessly. As dazzling as the molting trees become every autumn, their fiery splendor would be sullied by scattered piles of disregarded trash.

Lucky for us, for 20 years groups of volunteers, as dedicated as they are rugged (the cleanup goes on rain or shine), have helped keep the university’s section of the river – along the east river bank in St. Paul from the Marshall-Lake Street bridge down to the Ford Parkway bridge − clear of litter.

The first cleanup was organized by St. Thomas’ Environmental Issues Committee (now called the Green Team) in conjunction with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ Adopt-a-River program during Earth Week, April 1993, and has since become a staple in St. Thomas’ annual Earth Week lineup.

Jim Hoffman, assistant physical plant director, coordinated the inaugural crew’s efforts. A few years later, he recalled, perhaps 1995, the committee put a call out in October for volunteers to do the same in the fall. The twice-yearly tidying became the ticket to keeping the section vibrant.

“The first year we did it there was a ton of bags,” he said. “Things that had been there for years − shopping carts, tires, big pieces of junk – were all over the shore and all the way up the cliff. You could tell from how deep the tires were submerged that the trash had been there awhile. The following year the amount of litter we saw was greatly reduced.”

A volunteer poses with a severed stuffed bear found along the Mississippi River last year.

A volunteer poses with the severed head of a stuffed bear found along the Mississippi River last year.

20,000 pounds

This year could mark a milestone for St. Thomas’ annual fall Mississippi River cleanup.

Bob Douglas, coordinator of Recycling and Central Receiving, believes this year volunteers could collect enough trash to bring the university’s grand total close to 20,000 pounds.

Douglas estimates that each garbage bag they use holds 30 to 40 pounds of trash. Last year fall volunteers filled 32 bags.

He said the amount collected varies year by year, and weather is a powerful factor: “You can’t predict what the weather is. We have done the cleanup in the snow. When there’s snow on the ground it’s tough to dig up trash, and it’s dangerous. So we get less. But some years there’s more. And I can’t tell you why!”

Hoffman also remembered the first fall cleanup crew experienced a dose of treachery along the steep river bluffs. “It was terrible … a wet, cold, slippery mess!”

Eclectic discoveries

Despite having done an effective job the past 20 years, volunteers randomly find odd objects along the banks and bluff.

According to Douglas, past crews have disinterred a motorcycle, a handful of bikes, a hooka, “a neat, old wooden piggy bank full of foreign coins” and a number of municipal trash cans.

“In the fall of 2003 we found a full keg of beer on one of the flats. My guess is some people brought two of them down, got drunk and lost it in the dark,” he added. “Years ago, they also found a bus seat with graffiti all over it. The owner’s number was on it. We hauled it up and called up the guy, who said, ‘Oh, thanks! People have been calling about that bus seat for years.’”

Perhaps the strangest found object, in Douglas’ memory, was a giant stuffed bear found last year. “It was so gigantic, at first they thought it was a real bear until they got up close,” he said.

Help Always Wanted

The fall Mississippi River cleanup continues this year during sUSTainability Week at St. Thomas from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. this Saturday, Oct. 12. All are encouraged to meet at the usual spot – the World War I monument at the intersection of Summit Avenue and East Mississippi River Boulevard.

Bring gloves, rakes and good shoes. Bags and gloves will be provided for all participants who need them, compliments of the Minnesota DNR. Refreshments will be available for all workers.

The cleanup will take place rain or shine and is sponsored by the Green Team, Recycling Team, DNR Adopt-a-River and the Physical Plant.