photos courtesy Brian Waldrop, unless otherwise noted
They earned the title, “the Mighty 211,” for a reason. Brian Waldrop, who co-leads Arnold Stream Team 211 with Bernie Arnold, says the gregarious team’s goal is “to get large and strange stuff out of the creeks and floodplains.”
The strangest thing in the river, however, might be the team itself. “People call us animals,” Brian says. “When we say we’re having a cleanup, we’re going to get 500 tires and 150 barrels and 2 boats and a dumpster.” At river cleanups across the state, you’ll see the Mighty 211 armed with boats, kayaks, canoes, wrenches, saws and special pulleys. Any other weekend, you’ll find the team’s volunteers at home on the Meramec, chipping away at the watershed’s massive trash.
What’s their secret to tireless, brawny cleanups? Is it something in the water? Brian was eager to share.
Why is there so much big trash on the lower Meramec? It all goes back to 1993…
Remember this? Maybe not, if you’re a millennial. For everyone else, the Great Flood of 1993 is unforgettable. That year, high moisture, heavy snow, and unrelenting storms took over the Midwest. The Mississippi and the Missouri Rivers broke their levees and spread over nearly 20 million acres in the floodplain. Thousands of homes were lost and some towns had to relocate. If you look carefully, you can still see high water marks in places like Westport, Confluence State Park and Alton, Illinois.
Arnold, Mo., located at the confluence of the Meramec and Mississippi Rivers, was primed for disaster. “Hundreds and hundreds of river houses and trailer parks used to be in the floodplain of Arnold,” Brian says. “In the flood of ‘93, all that was destroyed.”
Out of those ruins came Stream Team 211. Founded by Mike DeRuntz in 1993, the volunteers cut their teeth on big, messy rubble, and it took two decades to fully clean the floodplain. Now, Brian says, the only trash remaining is one huge metal boat. “Everything else—washers, driers, ovens, stoves, all the tanks—all that’s back to nature to repair itself,” he says.
That doesn’t mean the 211’s work is over. Brian says that for the past half dozen years, the team has systematically worked upstream from the Mississippi River, with a special emphasis on creeks and tires. On March 23, 2013, twenty-five volunteers hauled a record 1,065 tires out of Louisville Creek and its floodplain in just one hour and forty-five minutes. Later that year, August 16-17, Waldrop and his crew traveled to Perry County, where they pulled 904 tires out of two sinkholes and dislodged a 2,850-pound tire from Little Whitewater Creek.
Why so many tires?
Back in the day, it was no big deal to dump stuff in ditches or on farmland, and it’s cheaper to dump an old tire than to recycle it. “Not only that, the Big River has hundreds of thousands of tires,” Brian says. That comes from the Lead Belt, in which factories used tires to dam their outflow. Lots of dams broke in the ‘70s and ‘80s, sending those tires downriver. (And don’t get us started on the heavy metals that went with them.)
The 211 dispose of their tires with the help of the MSTWC’s Revolving Tire Fund through the Department of Natural Resources. Click here for more information on how your Stream Team can use this program.
The 211’s three secrets to a strong team and successful cleanups:
1.) Give newbies the chills. In a good way. Here’s how: “We’ll take newbies out on the river, and we’ll give them all the trash we pick up because then as they’re going down the river, other people who are floating it are really stoked, and they’re giving those newbies kudos for picking up trash. And they get the goosebumps that go up your spine and down your arms, and they don’t know what to say other than, ‘thank you.’”
2.) Make friends in flow places. “We travel to Jack’s Fork, the Current River, Big Piney River, and wherever River Relief goes, and help other teams,” Brian says. “They’re our friends.” Then, whether it’s a sense of indebtedness or sheer joy in hardcore cleanups, teams from those rivers in turn come to Meramec events.
3.) Fight to the death (of trash). “The neat thing about Missouri Stream Team programs is we make it a competition between other teams because we can set the bar that way. What’s funny is even though we’re competing against these other teams, they’ve actually also joined our team.”
On defending their title:
Speaking of competition — if you think 211’s champion status is unattainable, think again. “Last weekend, we felt threatened,” Brian admits. “Stream Team 4660 pulled 460 tires out of Joachim Creek, and we’re thinkin’ we need to step up our game.”
How to clean rivers in freezing temperatures:
At this year’s Stream Team 211 Annual Wintertime Clean-up in March, the day’s average temperature was 36 degrees. Are you shocked? Don’t be; they’ve done colder clean-ups. “It’s no big deal,” Waldrop says. “We wear waders. And if we know we’re only going to be there for a little bit, just get in and get it done.” He pauses for a moment. “Maybe that’s why they call us animals.”
How Brian got started:
“I was always an outdoors person, always did trail hikes and orienteering. But it was my grandpa who took me to the first Stream Team cleanup, around 1995. The leader, Mike DeRuntz, had all the maps out, and he needed somebody to lead a group into the woods, so I volunteered. And I was amazed by all the areas you could walk on the trash without touching the ground. And it was great! They fed me, I got a shirt, I got a pencil. After a while, cleaning up trash was all I could think about. It’s all my grandpa’s fault. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be doing all this.”
There’s still more to do:
Brian leaves us with this humbling thought: “We feel we still have to make a statement. We haven’t done enough.”
Brian, you do more for our streams in a weekend than some people do in a lifetime. Not saying you should stop. Just sayin’.
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