‘From the Bottom Up’
To CNN, Chad Pregracke is a hero.
To Chad Pregracke, he’s just a man.
Recognized for his ceaseless efforts to rid the Mississippi River and other national waterways of litter, resulting in 7 million pounds of trash removed to date, Pregracke was named the CNN Hero of 2013.
“I was just one of many people doing really good work,” said Pregracke, who ended up splitting his $100,000 award among his nine fellow finalists.
“They were blown away,” he recalled. “(Host) Anderson Cooper was, like, ‘Nobody’s ever done that.’ I honestly thought, ‘How has nobody done that?’ That’s the only thing to do.”
Such selflessness helps define Pregracke. While he acknowledges that his work is important, he’ll readily admit that spreading the word and encouraging others to do the same is even more so.
As such, he’ll visit Boone for a presentation Monday, April 14, at the Harvest House (247 Boone Heights Drive), presented by Watauga River Partners, Mountain Keepers and the Western North Carolina Alliance. The event starts at 7 p.m. and is free to attend.
The Harvest House will be a change of venue for Pregracke, who spends nine months out of the year on a river barge, accompanied by his 12-person crew and tons on tons of trash. It means time away from home, but, according to Pregracke, his wife and family are more than supportive. Perhaps it’s because the results of his efforts speak for themselves.
So far, Pregracke and crew are credited with removing an estimated 67,000 tires, 218 washing machines, 19 tractors, four pianos and 1,000 refrigerators from the Mississippi. Smaller items range from bowling balls and bowling pins to messages in bottles.
“Some of them are pretty personal,” Pregracke said of the bottles, “like to lost loved ones or to a higher power, heavy stuff. But then there are ones I open, and it’s something cool. ‘Whoever reads this sucks’ was my favorite — a great way to start a Monday.”
Other items are harder to explain.
“Bowling balls I can understand, because people get mad, have a bad game, and throw them in,” he said. “I don’t know where they all come from, but every river has bowling balls in it. It’s the bowling pins that get in my mind, though. How do they get in there? I just don’t get it. You never know what you’re going to find.”
And that’s after 17 years of river clean-up. Having grown up in Illinois on the banks of the Mississippi, Pregracke spent his days on the river, swimming, fishing, playing and later even working as a commercial shell diver.
“I crawled so many miles on the bottom of the river, I got to know it from the bottom up,” he said.
Such is the title of his new book, “From the Bottom Up: One Man’s Crusade to Clean America’s Rivers.” That crusade started after Pregracke worked as a commercial fisherman, with towboats and barges.
“I saw so much garbage, thousands of 50-gallon barrels, thousands of tires, appliances, cars dumped over the bank, millions of plastic bottles,” he said. “And at that time, there really weren’t as many plastic bottles as there are now.”
Pregracke said some 18 million people get their water from the Mississippi, with approximately 900 cities drawing water right from the source, which happens to be teeming with litter.
“This shouldn’t be like this,” he said. “I started taking pictures, and I saw a NASCAR race that gave me an idea to get a sponsor.”
That sponsor is Alcoa, a leading producer of aluminum, which has aided Pregracke since 1997 through its foundation. Smaller sponsorships followed, and soon Pregracke was able to afford a barge.
“We started using barges, really, for a couple of reasons,” he said. “Trying to get rid of all the garbage (was difficult), because once we picked it out of the river, then we’d have to try to get it recycled. Every time we went back to a town, we had to find ways to unload. Now (with the barge), we could unload one time a year. Basically, it gave me all the time spent getting the river cleaned, and I could load her up.”
It also helps Pregracke and his crew remove some of the bigger offenders, such as cars. In the past, they’d remove them piece by piece. The recent addition of a crane, however, simplifies the matter. But the barge serves another purpose, especially for those who see it pass by.
“The barge makes a statement about the rivers without having to say a word,” Pregracke said.
Like so, his efforts have taken on a life of their own.
“It’s just a lot bigger,” he said. “It’s a machine now. Last year alone, we would never have dreamt back in the day about what we can accomplish now. We have a fantastic group of people.”
That group travels along the Mississippi and its major tributaries, hosting community cleanup events to raise awareness, spread the word and clean some waterways. To date, he said, they’ve done 794 cleanups in 23 rivers in 20 states.
Appropriately, Pregracke’s barge is named Teamwork. “That represents what this whole thing is about — a lot of people coming together for a common cause,” he said.
That cause, however, isn’t limited to Living Lands & Waterways.
“Get involved locally,” Pregracke said. “There are some great organizations out there that are doing great work and could use your help, whether that’s financial help or muscle power. Even if you’re good at computers or data entry, there are organizations that need a lot of help and young talent. It’s all about local.”
Pregracke’s message is one Watauga River Partners is happy to share.
“We’re all about creating awareness in our community about the rivers — not just the Watauga, but water resources in general,” WRP’s Ashley Wilson said. “And Chad is just truly representative of our mission and the kind of work we do and the kind of awareness that we want to bring about here in the High Country.”
Helping doesn’t necessarily involve joining an organization or chalking up community service hours.
“We just want people to be aware of the massive amount of litter that gets into our rivers and waterways, and helping out is just as easy as getting out there and doing it,” Wilson said.
Pregracke is case in point.
“People would definitely classify me as (an environmentalist),” he said, “but I’d classify myself as a regular American who saw a problem and wanted to do something about it.”
For more information on Chad Pregracke and Living Lands & Waters, visit http://www.livinglandsandwaters.org.