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Unclogging Our River

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It’s an overcast September day, and despite the impending fog, Captain Cass and his deckhands are gearing up to cruise the river. He points to his vessel, grinning. “There she is,” he says. The boat sits high in the water, a contraption of conveyor belts, a small wheelhouse, and a two-foot wide walkway on either side of the main conveyor. It’s called a River Skimmer, and she’s designed to do just what the name implies. Cass and his crew of two patrol the Milwaukee River in this funny-looking boat, collecting the refuse of industry, storms and random litterbugs. They’ve got a big job; it’s been a long time since the Milwaukee River has been considered clean. Years of human progress have clogged and polluted our namesake waterway, and when the RiverWalk was built, some expected nothing more than a nice view of the floating dump bisecting downtown. However, thanks to collaboration between the Downtown Development Commission, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District and the Port of Milwaukee, Captain Cass and his crew are paid to beautify the face of our blemished river. Armed with nets, pike poles and rakes, the crew prepares to wrestle the river for its loot. Cass takes the wheel and the boat is untied, backed into the river. Directives to the crew are given by hand gestures, and the din of the boat drowns out conversation. They take to the channel, and the arches of the Hoan bridge rise overhead, marking the spot where the Milwaukee flows into the lake. Cass explains that Milwaukee means “Joining of the Rivers,” which is fitting, because within minutes the river skimmer is passing the mouth of the Kinnickinnic River, and next the Menomonee. Along the way he points out evidence of their summers work: the riverside conveyors leading to the bins where they dump their cargo, and piles of brush and trees laid out on the bank. Big stuff like these trees are a real nuisance for boats, Cass explains, because it’s impossible to gauge the size of the thing through the river’s murky water. So out they come. To scoop one up, a conveyor lowers into the water a bit below the object, which is snagged and rolled up onto the main deck. “We see whole trees,” he says, “Thirty foot trees, picnic tables. Dead critters. Usually we’ll focus most on things that will not break down, unnatural things like plastics, but we will get fish and stuff when we need to.” Since Captain Cass drives, the crew has had to learn how to do the job with minimal input. “My regular crew really know what they’re doing,” Cass says proudly. His two protegees came from The Milwaukee Community Service Corp., and the trade-off works for everyone. Cass gets good deck hands, and his crewmembers get an unusual job — the chance to see the city from a new perspective each workday. Taking to the water four times a week, March through November, they’re constantly passing through the different worlds that comprise this short span of river, scanning for refuse. They leave port at Jones Island, a land of coal piles, conveyors and railroad bridges, and cruise through the booming Third Ward, zone of the condo craze and the multi-million dollar riverfront renovations. Sculptures stand sentinel on these revitalized banks, contrasting with the refuse piled high on the river skimmer’s deck As they progress through downtown, pedestrians stare with curiosity and wave at the odd boat from their vantage on the RiverWalk. If they ask, Cass will always take a minute to explain what they’re up to, relishing a chance to explain the aid his crew gives to the oft neglected river. He explains, “It’s gratifying in a lot of ways. I’ve been getting a lot of comments on how clean the river is, and it’s good to know that I helped to do that.”
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