Fisherman, volunteers cleaning up in junk hunts.

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Fisherman, volunteers cleaning up in junk hunts.

By Tim Renken of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
08/09/2001

Some people find personal glory in landing a trophy fish, like a 6-pound brown trout on 2-pound line.

Some find glory in shooting a big deer, like a trophy buck whitetail with a thick neck and five points on each antler.

Then there are those who find glory in retrieving, say, a rusting refrigerator, filled with mud and its own resident wildlife. Or maybe they land an old tire, a big one, or splintery slabs of house siding.

Just as hunters and anglers use guides, so can the junk seekers. This is much more than picking up gum wrappers on park trails. This is big-time stuff, maybe even a whole front porch.

The Midwest's premier trash guide is Chad Pregracke, of East Moline, Ill., a former commercial fisherman and clam diver who since 1996 has made a career out of cleaning up the Mississippi, Illinois and Missouri rivers and helping other people find such odd-ball enjoyment.

His guided junk hunts are free. Everything is furnished, including transportation, food, trash bins and even gloves. The chance of landing something glorious, maybe even an old auto body, is strong.

Clients pursue these trophies in the company of not only Pregracke and his crew, but also with local volunteers, people with the similar odd tastes and community spirit . These people can use their own boats, if they like, or use Pregracke's professional equipment. These are large, outboard work boats with small cranes for landing the heavy stuff, such as engine blocks.

Special-event cleanups are scheduled Sept. 15 at Hannibal, Sept. 19 at Grafton Sept. 22 in Alton Sept. 29 at St. Louis and Oct. 6 on the Missouri River out of Columbia. Information on the Mississippi River cleanups can be obtained from Pat McGinnnis at 636-899-2600. Information on the Missouri River cleanup, 35 miles from Hartsburg to Rocheport, can be obtained from Steve Johnson at 573-256-2602.

Pregracke, 26, is a modern-day prophet, whose river cleaning efforts have won conservation and community awards up and down the river. Last year the national Fish and Wildlife Foundation awarded him one of its highest honors, the Chuck Yeager Award.

Pregracke started cleaning up garbage along the Missisippi in the early 1990s while he was still fishing commercially and shelling. He would gather the stuff as he camped on river islands, then return to port at East Moline with his work boat brimming with junk as well as mussels and fish.

He realized right away he couldn't do much by himself, so he began seeking help in the form of volunteers and money. When he had no success with government, he started seeking publicity to help attract business.

Among his early contributors was Alcoa Aluminum, which makes beer cans, and Honda Marine, which provides his big, powerful outboard motors. One of his largest is Anheuser-Busch, which has put up substantial cash and has become the local sponsor of the annual cleanup near St. Louis.

These days Pregracke spends a lot of his time cultivating sponsors and gathering cash donations. But every summer he finds himself and his few full-time workers - some paid, most volunteers - on the Mississippi from Minneapolis to Cairo, the Illinois from Chicago to Grafton, the Missouri near Columbia and even on stretches of the Ohio. They live in Pregracke's houseboat, which itself was once river junk.

Sometimes the cleanups are community or service-club events, such as those held the last few years at Grafton, Alton and St. Louis. Most of the time it's just Pregracke and friends, working all day, muscling out trash and loading it on a donated barge. Information on the various community cleanups and on the whole Mississippi River Beautification & Restoration Project see http://www.cleanrivers.com or write: Chad Pregracke, 17615 Great River Road, Route 84 North, East Moline, Ill., 61244 (309-496-9848).
 


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