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Skunk River Navy
By:Todd Burras, Outdoors Writer October 05, 2001
'Admiral' Jim Colbert enlists Iowa State students to help clean up river. (10/05/01)
The energetic man with intense eyes and a determined look stood in knee-deep water carefully inspecting his fleet of eight watercraft. Satisfied, he quickly turned, looked over his mostly green crew and barked out one final command.

      "Remember," he exhorted, "the canoes aren't to ride in. They're to put trash in."

      With that admonition, the intrepid leader spun around and waded into the middle of the combat zone. His crew followed, albeit with varying degrees of resolve. No matter, at 12:25 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 22, the 18th voyage of the Skunk River Navy was underway.

      Spearheading the operation was "admiral" Jim Colbert, associate professor in Iowa State University's Department of Botany. The "fleet" of watercraft at Colbert's command was eight aluminum canoes rented from ISU Outdoor Recreation. The "crew" consisted of more than 30 members of the university's learning community for freshmen students interested in biology (a.k.a. "BEST" - Biology Education Success Teams).

      The crew's "mission" was concise: Pick up every piece of trash they could find in and along the banks of the South Skunk River from just below the dam at North River Valley Park downstream to the 16th Street bridge.

      Outfitted in combinations of shorts, pants, T-shirts, flannel shirts, sweatshirts, waders, tennis shoes, boots and even aqua socks, crew members, respectfully referred to as "Riverpersons First Class," were given leather gloves. The canoes contained trash bags, boxes and shovels, but not people.

      "If there's room when we're through, then you can ride in the canoes," Colbert said.

      Approximately three miles and five hours later, seating wasn't issue. Or an option.

      By then, the canoes were laden with eleven car tires, three 55-gallon barrels, two car hoods, two water heaters, one hockey goal and a vast assortment of other smaller items, including beer bottles, pop cans and fast-food bags.

      "We had a productive mission," Colbert said. "We picked up lots of trash. It was typical of what we've been finding."


One big bathtub

      Ever since he was a child growing up in eastern Iowa, Jim Colbert has been attracted to rivers and streams, the creatures that inhabit them and the recreational opportunities they offer.

      So when Colbert returned to Ames in 1988 to be an associate professor at ISU (he did his undergraduate studies at the university in the 1970s), it was only natural that he sought out the area's most inviting streams. The South Skunk River, in particular, drew his attention.

      "It was an area where I always liked to fish and hike and ski," Colbert said. "It was just a good place to go to enjoy the outdoors."

      There was, however, a problem.

      "It was always very annoying because there was so much garbage in the river," he said. "It always decreased the aesthetic aspect of the experience."

      Colbert put up with seeing the trash for awhile until one piece finally pushed him past his tolerance level.

      "There was an old, cast-iron bathtub sticking out of a sandbar near the Anderson canoe access, and I decided I really wanted to get it out of there," Colbert said. "But as I stood there and looked at the thing, I wondered, 'How in the world am I going to get something this big and heavy out of here?'

      "Then it dawned on me - young people."

      After making some calls to people like Story County Conservation Director Steve Lekwa and John Pohlman of the Ames Resource Recovery Plant, among others, Colbert had the information and help he needed to begin building the Skunk River Navy. And, in November 1998, the navy made its maiden voyage down the South Skunk River.

      "The students couldn't believe we were going to use a canoe to float out a bathtub that must have weighed 300 pounds," Colbert said. "But we did it."

       Since then, the Skunk River Navy has undertaken 17 additional missions.

      "We don't always pick up trash," Colbert said. "Sometimes we do water-quality assessments, and we've done some bank stabilization work by planting willows in a couple areas."

      Still, trash pickup remains the primary objective.

      "Fifty years ago I think it was a pretty accepted practice to take trash down to the river and dump it in," Colbert said, "or to use a ravine near a river or stream as a landfill. Eventually, rain washed that stuff into the river.

      "Every piece of trash has its own story, and there are lots of explanations of how it gets into our rivers and streams. But the fact remains, it got there somehow."

A shocking experience

      Tim Dunham wasn't sure what to expect when he enlisted with Colbert's navy for a clean-up trip last fall. Dunham, then a freshman biology major from near Marshalltown, had spent a lot of time camping growing up. But river clean-up was something entirely new.

      "He really preached about the Skunk River Navy in class, and I thought it sounded like a good experience," Dunham said. "I was kind of shocked by all the trash we found, but I was also surprised that the quality of water was pretty good considering all the chemicals and erosion that are in our rivers."

      Dunham's reaction was typical for first-time crew members.

      Irene Faass, an ISU doctorate student, who serves as an instructor in English 105 for most of the "BEST" students, said,

"The first time I went out I was shocked and surprised even though I knew there was trash in our rivers and streams."

      Faass often encourages her students to write about their experience with the Skunk River Navy in their weekly journals. "Shocked" is how most students describe the experience.

      "A lot of them are also upset with how people could be so disrespectful of the environment by dumping so much trash into our rivers," Faass said. "It makes some of them kind of mad."

      Although it baffles him at times, Colbert has become used to the naiveté many of his students have about the environment in which they live.

      "Incoming students, even though they are interested in biology, are more educated on the Serengetti than they are on what's going on in their own backyards," Colbert said. "I have kids who we take out who can't even identify a deer track. How can you live in Iowa and not be able to identify deer tracks?

      "You don't have to go to Africa to find biology when you can find biology in your own backyard. What's more, some of it is really cool, and maybe we should take more care of the biology we still have."

      Taking care of the environment, and the South Skunk River in particular, has its limits for the Skunk River Navy.

      "The big problems we're really facing is the pollution that comes from chemical runoff and siltation," Colbert said. "Even so, we're improving the aesthetic appearance of the river and in doing so hopefully we're planting ideas in the minds of these young people. By what we're doing, we're saying streams are interesting and valuable, and we're doing things to ruin them. Now we need to do something about it. This is a way of raising awareness with folks who can really go out there and amplify our efforts."

      Folks like his students.

      "Some of these kids are going to grow up to be biology teachers, some of them right here in Iowa, and maybe they can use this experience for a science project they might be teaching," Colbert said. "Others are going to grow up and be doctors and makes lots and lots of money. Maybe this will cause some of them to think about donating some of their money to groups involved in repairing creeks and streams.

      "This is really an attempt to make people aware, to get is on peoples' radar screens."


      How to enlist

      Jim Colbert ends his e-mails with the motto "end the suspense ... get your feet wet right away." So here are some contacts to make to learn more about helping out.

      To learn more about the Skunk River Navy, check out the following Web address: or contact Colbert by e-mail at:

      To learn more about the Squaw Creek Watershed Council, check out the following Web address: or contact either Colbert or Jim Cooper at:


Todd Burras is an outdoors writer forThe Tribune. E-mail him at

©Ames Tribune 2001
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