Group works at keeping clear waterways on the river

News Photo by Julie Riddle Alan Curtis prepares to place a choker around a river log while William Houston uses a pike pole to keep their boat from getting stuck on the fallen trees as the members of Thunder Bay River Restoration, Inc. clear obstructions from the Thunder Bay River near Lachine Sunday.

ALPENA — Mud swallowed William Houston’s foot as he climbed out of the boat onto the low bank of the Thunder Bay River. Tugging his boot free, he continued on with his mission of hauling a sodden log onto the bank.

The log, which had been blocking traffic on the river minutes before, was now one less obstacle that stood between boaters and a pleasant day on the river.

“This is better than my office any day,” said Nathan Skibbe, manning the boat’s motor in mud-crusted work clothes, as he swatted a horsefly.

As it has for the past three years, Thunder Bay River Restoration, Inc. was at work Sunday, clearing downed trees from the river that is used each summer by kayakers, canoers, and lovers of the peace and beauty of the river’s untamed banks.

As often as they can, the group of volunteers — including a defense attorney, a township supervisor, and a handful of retirees — put on their boots, work jeans and insect repellant, and head to the river to remove log jams and downed trees.

Every year the river is different, Skibbe said, the organization’s president. New trees, often big ash trees felled by the emerald ash borer, fall into the river, and old trunks are rearranged by the water to become impediments to boaters. The restoration group aims to leave a navigable path of at least 8 or 10 feet between obstacles in the river, keeping travel safe while leaving enough naturally-fallen wood in the river to avoid bank erosion and allow for good fishing spots.

On Sunday’s outing, the group of six started at the Salina Road bridge near Lachine and worked their way downriver. Teal and emerald dragonflies kept the men company in their boat, which was purchased by the group through a grant from Alpena County Youth and Recreation.

A newly fallen tree, leaves still green, blocked the river like a toll booth arm. There was enough room to get around it, the group decided, but on the other side they encountered another log that needed to be moved.

The boat was pulled up onto a low bank as the men strategized how best to clear the offending log. Ignoring water pouring from the legs of their jeans and wet shoes, several of the group climbed out onto the mud-slippery shore, hauling tools with them. Two chain saws, ropes, wire cable, and an indispensable winch were carried into the woods, where the group set to work securing the winch to a sturdy tree a distance from the river.

Meanwhile, the men remaining in the boat secured a choker around one end of an offending log, then motored the free end of a connecting cable to the men on shore. Cautions to stand back as the winch did its work of hauling the log onto shore spoke of experience with snapped cables and unpredictable tree limbs.

When the group was in its infancy, Skibbe said, he and another volunteer spent hours hauling the logs to shore with a hand pulley. The battery-powered winch, he said, is a vast improvement. The chain saws, too, are vital to the group, chopping logs into manageable pieces as they are being dragged onto the floodplain or being used to cut off an offending tree part in the river’s midde, water shooting high as the user stands on the log he’s cutting.

The job completed, the men climbed into the boat to look for the next blockage.

“Load up, and let’s go have some more fun,” said Joe Jackowiak, the only member of Sunday’s work crew not on the group’s board of directors.

The restoration group started out as a collection of fire department representatives from area townships, gathered to address safety issues on the river. With permission granted by the Department of Natural Resources to cut fallen trees on the river to allow for passage of rescue craft, the group also is able to make the river more pleasant for those out for an afternoon’s relaxation on the water.

Brittany Brown and Anthony Banks of Atlanta, who were on the river Sunday to fish from their canoe, told of heavy blockage downstream encountered on their last fishing expedition.

“We’re not doing that one again, not unless it gets cleaned up,” Brown said.

The river restoration group, hoping to exceed last year’s nine miles of cleanup, hopefully will make Brown’s wish come true.

“Thank you for doing what you do,” Brown called out to the workers and she and Banks canoed through an opening that had just been cleared.

Clearing log jams is rewarding work but requires small groups of workers, Skibbe said, for the sake of safety. In previous years, and hopefully again yet this summer, the group has invited volunteers to assist in a cleanup on the land surrounding the river — probably later in the year when insects aren’t so fierce. During one year’s cleanup, volunteers picked up eight cubic yards of garbage along the river’s shore.

Skibbe said the group’s goal is to keep the river usable by humans. But with human activity comes human mess. The recent consideration by the U.S. Forest Service of banning alcohol on area rivers is one reaction to that potential, Skibbe said. As someone who recognizes the impact of such a decision on local businesses as well as on general enjoyment of the river, he also has helped with river cleanups and seen what can happen when people are irresponsible.

“There’s always that find line between keeping something natural and beautiful, and also safe and clean,” Skibbe said, pulling a waterlogged tree chunk out of the caramel-brown water.

The river conservation group will work well into the fall, giving up their free Sundays to open passageways on as much as possible of the 1,250 square miles of the Thunder Bay River watershed

As the restoration crew pulled their boat from the water for the last time after six-plus hours of work, a family carried their kayaks to the river for a float.

“How’s the river down from here?” queried a man holding a kayak. The restoration group grinned at each other.

“Funny you should ask,” Skibbe said.

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693, jriddle@thealpenanews.com or on Twitter @jriddleX.