Mr. Cleanup

updated 07/03/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/03/2000 01:00AM

As a boy in East Moline, Ill., Chad Pregracke spent much of his time in or on the mighty Mississippi. Fishing almost daily, cruising the waterway in a family canoe or just leaping in to cool off, he was the consummate river rat. When he was 15, he even started making a few bucks on the side diving for clams with his older brother Brent. "They were a classic Huck Finn-Tom Sawyer combination," says his mother, KeeKee. "It was their life."

But resting up on river islands between dives in the mid-'90s, Pregracke, then a professional clammer, saw blight consuming the river—mattresses, refrigerators and other trash stacking up on the banks. One day, as he was guiding his boat home after work, he saw what should have been a pretty sight: a yacht sitting near the marina. "But onshore was a pile of barrels that had been there for 30 years," recalls Pregracke, now 25. "My thought was, 'I have to change that.' "

And he has. He started in 1997 as a one-man volunteer mission with no more equipment than a 20-ft. flat-bottomed boat and his own two hands. The operation has since grown into a major year-round effort called the Mississippi River Beautification & Restoration Project. So far Pregracke has tidied up more than 1,000 miles of the Mississippi and another 435 miles of the Illinois River, pulling almost 800,000 pounds of debris from the riverbank. Says environmental activist Robert Kennedy Jr., who hopes to enlist Pregracke's help in river cleanup efforts elsewhere: "Chad is doing a job that most would consider impossible—which is literally piece by piece cleaning up the river."

In the beginning, finding financial backing was tougher than the job itself. With no contacts, Pregracke cold-called area corporations, only to be asked, "What garbage?" "I got to thinking, 'They're sitting at their desks, they don't know,' " he recalls. Assembling photos of trash strewn along the river, he met with Tim Wilkinson, the vice president at Alcoa Mill Products in Bettendorf, Iowa. "The more he talked, the more I realized he was serious," says Wilkinson. "I thought, 'Here's a young man with a dream.' " With his black Lab Indy and $8,400 from Alcoa, Pregracke took to the river in June 1997 to load his first haul. "I was stoked," he says.

Pregracke, still very much a fish out of water when pitching corporations for support, raised an impressive $100,000 last year and hopes to double that this year. In addition, he persuaded companies to donate equipment and even extra barges. And he can still count on a little help from his parents, Gary, 58, a retired high school teacher, and KeeKee, 55, a student services coordinator at Black Hawk College in Moline. "When I tell someone, 'I'll have my people contact your people,' " says Pregracke, "that means, 'My mom will give you a call.' "

With more money, he has been able to bring aboard a volunteer crew of four—family friend Rodney Shaw, 32, and Erik Wilson, 26, both musicians, Wilson's girlfriend Jennifer Anderson, 26, and Lisa Hoffmann, 22, a forestry major at Southern Illinois University. They not only work together, they all live in Pregracke's 42-ft. houseboat The Miracle. They go ashore only a couple of times a week for supplies or a laundry run; previous volunteers-have been known to quit because they couldn't cope with the close-quartered communal living. Or the hard labor, which begins daily about 8, when Pregracke dismounts from his bunk bed and rousts the crew. "He wakes up full of energy," says Anderson. "You have no choice but to follow."

Admiring his beloved river one recent afternoon, Pregracke wonders what Huck Finn creator Mark Twain would have thought of his cleanup job. "I guess he'd say it was all right," he says. "His characters were into adventures. That's what I'm doing. It's an adventure."

Nick Charles
Kristin Baird Rattini in Hannibal

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