The Unlikely Environmentalist

How Chad Pregracke went from skater dude to the Mississippi River’s most impassioned caretaker is as odd a story as you’ll ever hear along the banks of the mighty river.

By Adam Hinterthuer

The thing you should know before meeting Chad Pregracke is that you’re probably going to get a pound. And you should blow it up. Which is to say, instead of a handshake, you’ll get his fist. Once your knuckles have tapped his, pull your hand back, fingers splayed, sound effects optional. This applies whether you’re a college student, grandmother, CEO, or factory worker. His enthusiasm is infectious. Around Pregracke, everybody wants a pound.

Right now, Pregracke’s zeal is serving him well, because he’s trying to get a crowd of 200 people excited about hauling trash off the banks of the Mississippi River. As volunteers mill around our meeting site in Davenport, Iowa, the last pink remnant of dawn gives way to an uncommonly cool and blustery August day. The Mississippi’s murky waters are choppy, and rain is in the forecast, but to Pregracke, today is “perfect.” He’s excited to be back in his hometown and “in awe” that so many people sacrificed their Saturday for his cause.

Pregracke hops onto a picnic table to tell everyone how “stoked” he is. Crystalline blue eyes glint underneath his worn, red visor as he launches into a speech reminiscent of the prelude to a wrestling match. At one point, he shoves up the sleeves of his T-shirt, referring to his arms as “thunder” and “lightning.” And, with that, all of us, aged seven to seventy, are cheering and laughing and wide-awake on this overcast day. We’re going to kick trash’s ass.  

Even once we march to the swampy depression where a previous flood left a couple thousand tires behind, people are excited. There’s friendly chatter and an exchange of encouragement as a human chain forms, running from the tires to dumpsters provided for the event. Everyone’s having a blast, which is weird, because hauling tires sucks. They’re silt-filled, and the work is backbreaking. The rusted rims have dangerous, jagged edges, and oily, black water sloshes onto our shoes. Occasionally, a snake shakes loose and is greeted with shrieks somewhere down the line. But work never slows. Teachers and students stand side by side, along with floor workers and upper management, all rolling sodden tires through the mud and having a grand old time. Pregracke keeps the chain running: walking up the line slapping backs and cracking jokes, then marching to the dumpster with a tire under each arm.

I’ve been invited to follow Pregracke around for the Fourth Annual XStream Cleanup, an event he’s organized with other nonprofits and businesses from the Quad Cities—Bettendorf and Davenport, Iowa and Rock Island and East Moline, Illinois. There are 31 sites, and 1,500 volunteers have come to clean the Mississippi clutching trash bags in their gloved hands. It’s the biggest XStream Cleanup to date, and a fitting capstone to a summer that marks Pregracke’s tenth anniversary of cleaning the river.

This small army is the result of a decision Pregracke made in 1997, when he looked out the window of his parents’ house on the Mississippi and was disgusted by all the trash the river carried past the backyard. At the time, he was enrolled at Black Hawk Community College and a couple of classes away from his associate’s degree. But Pregracke had no idea where college was leading and had grown tired of remarking, year after year, about the sad state of the river. So he dropped out, got into a flat-bottomed boat, and began to clean.

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