One hundred and seventy-nine refrigerators. One hundred and twenty-five jugs of pesticide. Four motorcycles. Three hundred propane tanks. Two Jacuzzis. Seven lawn mowers. One prosthetic leg. And it goes on--a partial inventory of the debris that Chad Pregracke, 25, has hauled from the depths of the muddy Mississippi in a lonesome crusade to Roto-Root the river all the way from St. Louis to Dubuque. It's an all consuming mission, worthy of an aquatic Don Quixote, and Pregracke's Mississippi River Beautification and Restoration Project has been at it for almost four years. After waking each morning on the crowded houseboat that is home to himself, five assistants and three dogs, he ventures out among the sloughs and sandbars to battle a rising tide of trash and fill the small flotilla of rusting barges that he pushes upstream with the help of passing tugboats, a clutch of corporate sponsors and sheer willpower.
The project is not a cause; it's a quest. Pregracke grew up just feet from the river in East Moline, Ill. He spent his summers as a teenager diving for freshwater mussels with his father and selling the iridescent shells to the Japanese cultured-pearl industry. To save money, the pair camped out on islands and beaches, living a fresh-air, idyllic life straight out of Mark Twain. By the time he started college though, Pregracke had come to see the river differently--not as a source of income and diversion but as a threatened, fragile living creature that needed his help. Crawling on the weedy bottom in his search for shells, attached by a hose to an air tank on the surface, he couldn't see much--the water was too turbid--but he could feel things. Things he didn't like. Sunken tires. Barrels of chemicals. Microwave ovens and deflated basketballs.
Pregracke decided he had to do something. "When I started out, a lot of people thought I was nuts," he says. "But in America, it's still possible to do something like this. There was an opportunity for me to make a difference." In the summer of 1997, without outside funding or public recognition, he single-handedly removed 45,000 lbs. of junk from a 100-mile stretch of shoreline. Soon a modest grant arrived from Alcoa Corp.
With little money but plenty of boyish zeal, Pregracke began to enlarge upon his ambitions. He hunted up a couple of outboard motors, the barges, two aluminum runabouts and an Army-surplus bridge-building boat, which he equipped with a John Deere combine cab to make a sort of tugboat. He raised a sinking houseboat, made it seaworthy, assembled an eager young crew and hit the river--vowing to spend his summers on the water until the job was done.