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Three large tires being removed from the KK River during 2013 cleanup

Photo essay: Milwaukee Riverkeeper Cleanups through the years!

11:00 am  |  Topics: Events


By Eddee Daniel

Note: This photo essay is a companion piece to a story I wrote for Milwaukee Magazine, which was published in the April 2022 issue and posted online.

This Milwaukee River Cleanup Brings Out 4,000 Volunteers Every Year

After another long Wisconsin winter, who doesn’t yearn to head outdoors to enjoy warmer temperatures, longer days and the emergence of buds and blossoms? Walking along Milwaukee’s rivers, rushing with snowmelt, can be particularly invigorating. And as the snow cover gradually recedes it begins to reveal … tons of trash!

A sad and inevitable truth about urban living is that the detritus of the city accumulates, especially over the winter, making a mess of many of the places we love the best, including our rivers.

Enter Milwaukee Riverkeeper, the advocacy organization that works to improve waterways throughout our area. For more than 25 years, Milwaukee Riverkeeper has organized thousands of volunteers to help with its annual Spring River Cleanup, timed to coincide with Earth Day.

The "shopping cart brigade" with a collection of shopping carts removed from the Kinnickinnic River in 2006.
The “shopping cart brigade” with a collection of shopping carts removed from the Kinnickinnic River in 2006.

“Our rivers are such an important part of Milwaukee,” says Jennifer Bolger Breceda, the group’s executive director. “Our annual cleanup is a way for the community to spend a morning walking along the river, removing trash and pollution, connecting with neighbors and helping to beautify our community.”

In recent years, more than 4,000 volunteers have picked their way through tall grasses and riverside thickets along all three major local waterways – the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic rivers. Most are on foot, trying to dislodge recalcitrant debris and sometimes wading into the water to untangle shredded bags from briers and tree branches, while some set out in rowboats, canoes or kayaks to retrieve sunken rubbish, mud-filled tires, shopping carts, even rusting bicycles.

To read the rest of the story go to the Mke Magazine website. The photos in the magazine’s version of the story are not mine, but these are. Enjoy!

2006 was one of the early years when there was so much heavy trash that a dumpster and crane were needed to remove it all from the Kinnickinnic River near Baran Park.
2006 was one of the early cleanups when there was so much heavy trash accumulated over many years that a dumpster and crane were needed to remove it all from the Kinnickinnic River near Baran Park.
A particularly disturbing find--a syringe--on Honey Creek in Wauwatosa, 2006.
A particularly disturbing find on Honey Creek in Wauwatosa, 2006.
A happy group of young volunteers on the Milwaukee River near North Avenue, 2007.
A cheerful group of young volunteers on the Milwaukee River near North Avenue, 2007.
Volunteers with the CH2M Hill group, a regular corporate partner, spread out along the concrete channel of Honey Creek, 2008.
Volunteers with the CH2M Hill group, a regular corporate partner, spread out along the concrete channel of Honey Creek, 2008.
In 2013, Milwaukee Police Department officers were called in to inspect a bag found in the river that contained a gun.
In 2013, Milwaukee Police Department officers were called in to inspect a bag found in the river that contained a gun.
A chalkboard found in the Milwaukee River near Hubbard Park, 2017. Lesson learned?
A chalkboard found in the Milwaukee River near Hubbard Park, 2017. Lesson learned?
Teamwork is the name of the game for Girl Scouts helping out at Lincoln Park, 2017.
Teamwork is the name of the game for Girl Scouts helping out at Lincoln Park, 2017.
A lone canoeist collecting trash along the Milwaukee River in Lincoln Park, 2017.
And some volunteers prefer to work alone! Lincoln Park 2017.
Sometimes, along with the trash, wildlife, like this garter snake and tiny turtle, can be found--and carefully returned to its now cleaner habitat! Menomonee River near Three Bridges Park, 2014.
Sometimes, along with the trash, wildlife can be found–and carefully returned to its now cleaner habitat! Menomonee River near Three Bridges Park, 2014.
Some kinds of trash are harder to tackle than others! Lincoln Creek Greenway at 35th Street, 2018.
Some kinds of trash are harder to tackle than others! Lincoln Creek Greenway at 35th Street, 2018.
A man on shore reaches for a large, metal object in the Menomonee River.
And some are just plain hard! Menomonee River near the stadium, 2013.
Some heavy lifting required! Lincoln Creek near 35th Street, 2019.
And sometimes the furniture just keeps piling up! Underwood Creek Parkway at 115th Street, 2012.
Two young Riverkeepers-in-training join volunteers of all ages along the Menomonee River at the stadium, 2009.
And at least one time Poseidon made an appearance, if only symbolically, to bless the proceedings. Kinnickinnic River at Baran Park, 2013.

(This year’s cleanup is taking place on Saturday, April 23. Please join us! Go to Milwaukee Riverkeeper to register. And while you’re at it, check out the Photo Contest being held this year. Your shot is as good as mine–it’s all about being in the right place at the right time–no one knows ahead of time what will be dredged from the deep!)

Addendum: I’ve posted follow up photos of this year’s River Cleanup, which happened as planned on a perfectly gorgeous April 23, on Flickr.

Eddee Daniel is a current board member of Preserve Our Parks and a former board member of Milwaukee Riverkeeper, which is also a partner organization of A Wealth of Nature. Eddee is a former columnist at Milwaukee Magazine, where you can see still find his Urban Wilderness stories.