COLUMBIA — The Rocheport river bend is where tires, plastic bottles and commercial refrigerators go to die.
It's hard for someone who has never spent time on the river to understand how mud, water, rocks and fallen timber can be so beautiful, but the volunteers of Missouri River Relief get it and Saturday they came en masse to try to preserve it.
The river cleanup was part of the “Rocheport Day of Caring” event that drew more than 100 volunteers including 50 students from West Junior High School in Columbia. Other events included an organized garlic-mustard pull— an attempt to abate an invasive weed species that lines the Missouri River in vast fields, and the dismantling of an abandoned shack.
“A lot of people are scared of the river; they hear stories of giant whirlpools and snags,” said Dave Stevens, service manager at MC Cycle in Columbia who helped out with the cleanup, “But the river is just like anything else, if you are wise and educate yourself about it you can go pretty much anywhere you want to go in relative safety.
"It's nice to get away a couple miles and find your own sandy beach or your own private island for the day," Stevens said. "It's a real sanctuary from everyday life. It’s a nice departure from the daily chaos.”
Stevens, or “Racin’ Dave” as he is known within the Columbia motorcycle and river relief communities, has been a part of the Missouri River Relief program for more than seven years. He has never missed a local cleanup. He has navigated more than 800 miles of the river over the years in his preservation efforts.
“The river gives you a lot of relief; going out and picking up trash on the river is how we give it a little relief back,” Stevens said.
River Relief volunteers like Stevens are reminiscent of the Spartans; though their cause is noble, they are futilely outnumbered. Plastic bottles — too many to count — littered the banks. “This is what you call job security,” Stevens said as he surveyed the trash. At the end of the day, a multitude of trash had to be left behind.
Almost anything can be found along the bend, including tires, Christmas ornaments, park benches and even a white cross that once marked the spot along a road where someone lost a loved one. The heavy-duty boats the Missouri River Relief has obtained can haul up to 50 bags of glass and plastic per trip, or as many as four muddy water heaters.
One of the stranger pieces of trash left on the riverside is an old sunken barge that forms an unnatural shoreline along the bend. Volunteers guessed it was at least 40 years old, but no one knew for sure. The barge, which the River Relief staff used as a boat dock, had to be left behind.
The site also suffers from the dumping of large appliances like refrigerators and water heaters that are expensive to recycle properly. At one location, frenzied volunteers attacked a massive commercial freezer with sledge hammers and shovels, trying to break it into pieces that could be carried or rolled away.
“If we could just convince people to stop dumping …” said Liz Doubet, a Columbia home health nurse. “I think there should be better laws against dumping and more opportunities and programs for people to get rid of their stuff for free. It’s so expensive to take a freezer to the dump or to recycle tires.”
This was Doubet’s first year with the program and she brought her daughter and two sons out to help. “I wanted to get my kids involved, this is their first big cleanup. What I like about the group is that it is very family oriented. We all look out for each other.”