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49th Skunk River Navy

Operation: Long Run

by Admiral L.N. Westerdale

Bright and early on the morning on September 26, 2015, the Skunk River Navy (SRN) assembled in Bessey Hall to be briefed on its latest mission, Operation: Long Run. Skunk River Navy founder and Admiral Jim Colbert affectionately named this 49th Navy mission after its lengthy four-mile course. Volunteers included Biology students, learning community members, peer mentors, laboratory TA's, Biology faculty members, and returning SRN veterans. Admiral Colbert reviewed the day's itinerary, important safety information, and best SRN practices.

49th SRN Mission Briefing

Upon the concluding this informational gathering, Admiral Colbert joked with his fellow river-persons: "Once we get to the river, depending on how you look at it, there will either be no restrooms, or everywhere will be a restroom." The adventurous, but not that adventurous, SRN volunteers proceeded to rush into the Bessey Hall restrooms prior to loading into the two large yellow school busses parked and at-the-ready just outside.

49th SRN Busses

 The busses hauled the sleepy travelers eleven bumpy miles up to Anderson Canoe Access. There, volunteers hopped out of the busses and swiftly divided into two teams. Returning SRN veterans assembled with Admiral Jim Holtz to assist in unloading the Navy's trash barges of choice, green canoes. Introductory Biology (BIOL 211) and learning community students marched onward with Admiral Colbert to explore the Skunk River's wide range of biodiversity. Before beginning their search, students were met with the first obstacle of the day: getting into the Skunk River.

49th SRN Bridge

The newest Navy members were quick to demonstrate teamwork and encouragement for their fellow riverpersons. Students gracefully plunged, plummeted, and tumbled their way into the frosty river water. The quick change in temperature elicited a sharp screech from a few of the Navy's brave souls.

49th SRN Diving In

The survivors quickly scurried onto the riverbank, eager to begin exploration. Once all riverpersons were accounted for, students, learning community peer mentors and faculty boldly returned to the chilling waters to initiate their investigation of the aquatic biodiversity in the Skunk River.

49th SRN Biodiversity49th SRN Peer Mentor

After an assortment of biological organisms had been captured and collected, the teams untied to participate in a biological show and tell. Their discoveries were examined, identified, and meticulously recorded. The data would later be submitted to update the Iowa Department of Natural Resources IOWATER volunteer water-monitoring database. As Admiral Colbert explained to the group, the various biological organisms present in a given aquatic habitat provide insight into the water's overall quality and characteristics.

49th SRN Show and Tell49th SRN Frog

Meanwhile, Admiral Holtz and his team of seasoned veterans embraced the unseasonably elevated water levels while guiding the canoes into the Skunk River and gliding them over to the rest of the group. The SRN was now ready to embark on the service portion of Operation: Long Run. The first mile of river refuse removal was now underway.

It was not long before one savvy riverperson spotted the glint of a large metal pole sparkling in the sunlight. Upon further investigation, the pole led to an attached picnic table hidden beneath the river's murky water. Hooray! Operation: Long Run had scored its first piece of "trophy trash".

"Trophy trash" is a SRN term used to describe unusually bulky and/or unique items. These items tend to be some of the most memorable and rewarding removals.

Volunteers wasted no time in wrestling the bulky picnic table out from under the river's weight and quick current. With the help of chains, muscle and sheer willpower, the picnic table was successfully negotiated from its previous resting place into a signature SRN canoe.

49th SRN Picnic Table

Another distinctive discovery caught the attention of a small group of students huddled on the sandy banks ahead. A vertebrae fossil was uncovered and carefully examined by the group. The curious students hypothesized that the fossil had once belonged to a deer, elk or similar mammal.

49th SRN Vertebrae

As the Navy sloshed onward down the river, the first of many black rubber tires was spotted and yanked from its wrongful location. Volunteers heaved it, and later many of its kind, onto a canoe for transport along the river.

49th SRN Tires

For some, the true meaning of Operation: Long Run began to sink in when word spread that the mission was less than halfway complete. The now exhausted, sticky and sandy SRN crew was overjoyed to finally reach its lunch location. Retired ISU Biological/Pre-Medical Illustration (BPMI) professor, Dean Biechler, and his kind wife generously surrendered their beautiful backyard to the swarm of hungry volunteers. Sandwiches were distributed and quickly consumed by the ravenous group.

49th SRN Lunch Break

Once the troops were fed, it was right back to business. A few of the more eager volunteers shifted their focus toward a newly discovered piece of "trophy trash". This time the trophy was a massive, timeworn ride-on lawnmower, which the zealous helpers strained to heave into a nearby canoe.

Fallen trees up ahead congested the river stream and created a standstill. The impeding tree trunks, limbs and branches created a low bridge that barely allowed empty canoes to float by underneath. It was suddenly clear that any large item perched upon the canoes would need to cross the clogged passage another way.

The Navy quickly began strategizing. A new side path was forged along the riverbank to accommodate these items. Volunteers rolled up their sleeves, gritted their teeth and relied on their fellow comrades to lift the enormous, waterlogged picnic table into the air and around the fallen debris.

49th SRN Low Bridge49th SRN Table Bridge

With the hindrance nearly behind them, the Navy realized that one last obstacle still remained. The newly acquired ride-on lawnmower came complete with a lengthy vertical steering column. This added height made passage under the low bridge impossible. As the zealous helpers learned previously, the mower would be incredibly heavy to carry. So it was decided. The steering column must go.

Attempt #1: Yanking, tugging, pushing and pulling

After what seemed like hours of spirited attempts, the mower's steering column proved victorious over the physical strength of mere humans.

49th SRN Mower

Attempt #2: The shovel

Admiral Colbert valiantly came to the rescue with a metal shovel, sure to break the steering column free from the troublesome mowing machine. After safety warnings and precautions were taken, the full power of the shovel was unleashed. This effort proved futile against the infallible steering column.

Attempt #3: The ax

With muscle and determination on their side, the Navy knew the ax would be mighty enough to take down even the strongest of enemies. The steering column stood no chance against this weapon of choice. Unbelievably, the ax, too, failed to separate the invincible steering column from the mighty mower's grasp.

49th SRN Ax

Attempt #4: Denial

Perhaps with the steering wheel now removed from the steering column, the mower would be short enough to float unobstructed beneath the low bridge... Wishful thinking had never been so cruel.

49th SRN Mower Denial

Attempt #5: The Inevitable

With heavy hearts, the Navy knew what must be done. The massive mower would need to be carried in order to bypass nature's forbidding bridge. 

Volunteers dug in their heels and hoisted the monstrous machine onto the riverbank. They proceeded to zigzag below an arching limb and return the machine to the water where a nearby canoe awaited. Claps and cheers erupted along the waterway. The Skunk River Navy was victorious at last!!

49th SRN The Inevitable

The Navy now marched down the waterway, swelling with pride at the defeat of their latest obstacle. Little did they know, a new piece of trash that did not feel much like treasure was unearthed up ahead. Admiral Colbert rocketed his way atop the steep riverbank and pushed as the Navy below him pulled at this mysterious new discovery. For all their efforts, the Navy was now the proud owner of one, and disturbingly only one, porta potty wall.

49th SRN Rope Tug

Smiles spread across the determined faces of the Navy as the latest update buzzed down the line. The end was nearly in sight! One satisfied student was excited to make her final discovery of Operation: Long Run. A tiny painted turtle popped its head up from the cloudy water as if to thank the SRN for the day's efforts.

49th SRN Turtle

At the conclusion of Operation: Long Run, students, faculty, and veterans alike unloaded the heaping canoes and buckets of trash into an oversized city dumpster. In total, the Skunk River Navy extracted a whopping 4,180 pounds of trash from the city's waterways over the course of its two Fall 2015 operations.

49th SRN Trash Bin

The bizarre discoveries, newly forged friendships, amazing feats of teamwork, and deep sense of accomplishment felt by those who dedicated their precious Saturday to Operation: Long Run and the Skunk River Navy will not soon be forgotten. Please accept this sincere thank you to all who answered this year's SRN call. Your time and devotion made 4,180 pounds of difference. A special congratulations to Skunk River Navy's newest survivors and their recent promotion to First-Class Riverpersons!