What’s inspiring about the Chad Pegracke story is how a young man who grew up with the Mississippi River literally at his door step could see the giant cesspool the river had become not as a limiting force. Somehow, it didn’t make him want to give up and throw another 55-gallon drum, fridge, TV or sofa in like everyone else.
At age 22, Pegracke, a native of a small town on the river who dove to the bottom of its murky, fast-moving waters every summer for mussels using a garden hose pumped with air, drew the line. Without knowing what would happen next, he dove into a venture that’s led 70,000 volunteers in dragging mountains of other people’s junk from the banks of America’s mightiest river. Along the way, he’s begged (for three giant barges), borrowed (his brother’s houseboat, which he sank) and stole (the hearts undoubtedly of other young people wondering what to do about their passion for place, home, and the natural areas that sustained and still motivate them to work, even for free for years, as they define a vocation).
“I didn’t blame anyone” for the mess that they caused, he told the Conservation Symposium at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Instead, he cold called on nearby companies like Alcoa, which had a presence in Davenport, Iowa where Pegracke envisioned starting a 430 mile journey to clean up the Mississippi; one piece of junk at a time. His enthusiasm garnered his first $8,400 check from the company. There were a lot of lean years, and set backs to follow. He wanted to give up long after his crew of six did. But, something in Pegracke—his childhood growing up on the river or his dogged determination—led him on.
“It’s the most valuable resource I had to offer,” said Pegracke who favors a ballcap and jocular style of a kid who grew up in the Midwest. “One year, I started living under a bridge with my dog and my truck. We were moving up river toward Chicago. We saw nothing but tires and barrels—it was an open sewer. If it was easy, I would have given up a long time ago.”
They were filling up a barge the size of Murch Auditorium at the Natural History Museum every month, he said. Why, faced with seemingly insurmountable trash removal that happened 24/7, did he not give up?
“The biggest thing I learned about river clean up is not about the river. It’s about the people. We created an opportunity for people to come out and make a difference.”
Ten years later, Pegracke has built an empire of trash removal and recycling with his group Living Lands & Waters—with five, giant barges and crews working on the Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio and Anacostia rivers. Pegracke finds hope in the fact that they don’t have to return to places once they’ve been there.