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

Living Lands and Waters’ expanding budget allows the group to branch out whenever Pregracke sees a need. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, he cancelled the remaining summer cleanups so he and the crew could take barge loads of construction materials to Louisiana and help families there rebuild. Last August, he set up a recycling program at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota, where tens of thousands of bikers now have a place to toss their empties. And then there’s Capital River Relief, an annual cleanup of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers in Washington, DC. Pregracke organized it in 2004 because, as he was flying into town to receive the Jefferson Award for Public Service, he looked out his window at the polluted Potomac and thought, “What kind of message is our government sending about our rivers?”

When we get to the skate park, Pregracke rockets away, pulling off a couple kick flips to get into rhythm. It’s easy to see why he’s good at skateboarding. And it says a lot about why he’s succeeded on the river: To land a trick, you have to commit to it completely; doubt and hesitation just lead to a wipeout.

Pregracke skates up to the lip of a drained swimming pool and pauses at the deep end. Someone has slapped a bumper sticker at the top. It says, “Don’t Do It.” But he slides out over the void anyway, his back foot anchoring the tail of the board to the edge. Then he leans forward and drops in.

Mike Coyne-Logan calls this “Chad’s philosophy,” and it’s summed up in three words: “Action, not talk.” It’s the afternoon after the cleanup, and I’ve caught a ride back to the barge with Logan, one of the newest members of the crew. Logan is telling me about the challenge of keeping up with Pregracke. When people first see their floating living quarters, they always wax poetic about “life on the river.” But the reality, Logan says, is often twelve-hour workdays, aching muscles, and nasty weather. It takes a certain kind of person, and there’s a pride knowing one has what it takes. It helps that Pregracke is a great boss, Logan says. “He’s just a genuine guy. He could’ve made a fortune if he went into advertising or something, but this is what he cares about.”

Back on the barge, Pregracke tells me that some environmental groups have suggested his philosophy has him tackling the problem from the wrong end. They argue that pushing for legislation on trash and educating the public about littering would better curb the stream of refuse that pollutes America’s rivers. But Pregracke says his role is not to proselytize or hold political rallies. It’s much simpler.

“You gotta create an opportunity for people to do something,” he explains. “You don’t want to roll into town proclaiming, ‘We’re Living Lands and Waters’ and try to fix everything. Nobody would work with you. You want to prop everybody up, because you’re leaving. You’re there maybe four days, and then you’re like, ‘Peace.’”

And people, Pregracke says, are often starved for a chance to get involved. He set out to save the mighty Mississippi by himself but, within months, was caught in a current he didn’t realize existed. Thousands of other people were disgusted by what floated in their rivers. Pregracke was just the first to get in a boat and start cleaning.

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