TRAVERSE CITY — Last year's Brown Bridge Dam breech swept docks, decks and other large debris down the Boardman River along with a torrent of pond water.
But most of that wreckage is now gone, thanks to Norman Fred, of Traverse City, and his nonprofit volunteer organization Boardman River Clean Sweep. The group, volunteers from the Traverse Area Paddle Club, and staffers from the Grand Traverse Conservation District spent two days last month pulling about 23 pieces of large refuse from a 6-mile stretch of river.
"These people do it for the love of the river," Fred said of the more than 20 volunteers who assisted in the cleanup. "I'm more than happy. I'm jubilant we got it done."
Clean Sweep began cleaning trash and refuse out of the Boardman almost 10 years ago. The group has since expanded its efforts to about 12 rivers in the region, including the Upper and Lower Platte, the Betsie and the Jordan rivers.
Volunteers pulled huge trash containers loaded with junk from the Boardman in Clean Sweep's earlier years, said Fred, Clean Sweep's chief executive officer. But the big loads turned to garbage bag loads over time, until the Brown Bridge Dam broke last fall.
"When the dam broke we were devastated," Fred said. "We'd worked so hard to get (the river) cleaned up."
Fred decided to mobilize a project to remove large pieces of structures from the worst damaged sections of the river. He obtained a $1,000 grant from the Adams Chapter of Trout Unlimited, a $2,000 grant from Rotary Charities, a big trash container from engineering firm AMEC and got to work.
He first traveled down the river with his son David Fred and Steve Largent of the Grand Traverse Conservation District and marked locations of large debris with GPS coordinates.
Later, more than 20 volunteers hauled each piece of debris out of the water with a portable winch, cut the debris into pieces with a chainsaw, then floated the pieces downriver on canoes to the waiting trash container.
The work was hard and the debris was heavy -- one section of bridge had two steel beams attached to it -- but volunteers completely filled the 15-yard container with roughly 4,500 pounds of deck, dock and bridge.
"They didn't just throw it in there either," Norman Fred said. "They packed it like a suitcase."
The Clean Sweep project improved both the river's safety and aesthetic quality, Largent said.
"A lot of these docks and beams have nails sticking out of them," Largent said. "They are not only dangerous from a (river) user's standpoint, they look unseemly."
The volunteers removed other things from the river, too. Last fall's flood washed all sorts of items commonly found in people's garages into the waterway, Norman Fred said. Some of the more peculiar items the volunteers found included bits of newspaper from the 1950s, a 36-inch sawmill blade with the date 1886 stamped on it, and a small statue of a boy wearing a blue hat.
Norman Fred remembered seeing the statue on a dock before the Boardman flooded. The boy's feet hung over the dock's edge and made a convenient reference point to gauge the river's height before the statue was swept away.
"We found him and put him back," Norman Fred said.