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One Man's Mission To Clean The Boise River

Chris Nelson stands on the bank of the Boise River put-in in his full-body wet suit. He has flippers on his feet, and snorkel gear around his face. He clips a 23-pound weight belt around his waist and ties a small raft to it.

“As far as I know, I’m the only nut that swims the whole stretch,” he says.

People getting ready to float the river stare. His raft drags behind him as he flip-flops to the water.

Nelson’s been doing this every summer Sunday for 13 years. He’s part of the Boise River Volunteers, a group of residents who for years now clean up trash along the river.

Nelson attracts a lot of attention during his six-hour swim. This is the sort of thing people yell to him:

“Did you find my rolex? I dropped it over here last week!”

He replies, “Yeah, I got ten bucks for it. Thanks!”

“You finding anything good?” another floater yells.

“There’s a body around here somewhere,” a guy sitting in an inter tube says to his friend, watching Nelson skeptically.

And often, Nelson gets this. “We love [the Boise River Volunteers], they’re keeping it [the river ] clean!”

Nelson finds a lot of strange objects at the bottom of the Boise River and he tries to return these items to their rightful owner.

He dives down near the Broadway bridge, and surfaces with a gasp, water shooting out of his snorkel. He hoists a ten-pound workout weight into his little raft.

“Nothing surprises me anymore,” he mumbles, and shoves the snorkel back into his mouth.

He finds lots of glasses, wallets, a go-pro camera that actually recorded for 25 minutes at the bottom of the river, a laptop, a gun, a two-headed parking meter, and “The set of chef knives,” Nelson says.

“Yes, we’ve speculated on how that got in there. We thought possibly a culinary arts student got angry with mom and dad, bagged the class, and tossed the knives in the river. I dunno, but I posted them and nobody ever claimed them so I used them at home.”

For people who float the river regularly, many notice a change in the water this year. Liz Paul works for Idaho Rivers United, and she floated the river a few weeks ago. This is what she saw.

“Garbage, and garbage, and garbage just strewn up and down the river on that Barber-toBoise reach,” Paul says. “And I just turned to my colleague and said, ‘Something tells me that the Boise River Volunteers have not been out here yet this year.’”

The group’s founder took a job out of state this summer and there hasn’t been a single organized float this year. They’ve also struggled to come up with money for shuttles and boat repairs. They reach out to businesses in the community and sell memberships, but a lot comes from the founder’s pocket.

Jake Halderman is a volunteer. He feels frustrated with the lack of activity. He says typically, the group of fifteen goes out every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday during the summer. They spend nine hours picking up trash from pontoon boats.

“We’ll pick up enough to fill your living room twice over every weekend. It’s just amazing how much piles up,” Halderman says.

With the rest of the Boise River Volunteer crew on hiatus, Nelson is almost single handedly cleaning up the river. That’s because the river is controlled by many different agencies. Some oversee water quality while others oversee the banks. No one organization is responsible for cleaning up after rafters.

At the end of the stretch, Nelson drags his little raft onto the beach. Fifty pounds of trash weighs it down.

He begins sorting, recycling, throwing away, and keeping what he can, and his frustration is clear.

“Paddles,” he says, throwing a handful into the garbage can. “Oh, here’s a nice little radio,” he says, holding up a waterlogged transistor. “Beer cans...I thought there was a drinking ban.”

Nelson  enjoys his self-appointed job to clean up the river and he plans to do it for as long as he can.  “I’m 53 now. So I’m getting kinda old, but I’m a diver and I like to be in the water." he says. "I like to see the wildlife in there and see the people having fun in the summer. It’s a great recreation.”

Meanwhile, the city and the Boise Fire Department do organize a yearly river sweep to pick up trash from floaters. That float takes place this year on September 15.

If you think Chris Nelson may have found something of yours, you can visit the lost-and-found page on the Boise River Volunteers website. The group will be back next summer in full force. The river closes for the season on September 4.

Copyright 2012 Boise State Public Radio

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