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Behind the scenes with Chad Pregracke and Living Lands & Waters

From the From the archives: The Big Story 2017 series
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Alongside a towering cedar tree in his childhood stomping grounds, Chad Pregracke took in the familiar scene.

The discrete waterfall still empties into a shallow pond, and chirping birds drown out the traffic from the nearby Interstate-80 bridge.

Sporting his usual garb — plaid shirt, blue jeans, boots, shades and a hat — the 42-year-old founder of Living Lands & Waters was still sweating from his trek through the woods.

He pointed to the bank of his old swimming hole, where he pitched a tepee, back in the day. He didn't like the light screaming in from the interstate rest area, so he fixed it.

“That’s why I planted these two (cedar trees) here," he said, smiling at his youthful ingenuity. "I wanted it to be secluded.”

The moment of reflection marked rare downtime for the renowned river rat, who was scouting the site of his latest restoration project, just two weeks before setting out on another season of river cleanups.

About a half-mile west, on Illinois 84, members of his crew were preparing to pick up where they left off last year. Shaking off a winter hibernation that was anything but restful, Pregracke and crew were about to return to the life they know, back on the river.

Where in the world is Chad?

Since launching the nonprofit environmental organization in 1998, Pregracke said he has hired, worked and lived with more than 100 different people, plus tens of thousands of volunteers.

“I just suck up all the attention,” Pregracke said. “I feel bad about it, but I can’t help it.”

The man was named CNN Hero of the Year in 2013 for spearheading the removal of millions of pounds of garbage from the country’s waterways.

However, without the crew Pregracke surrounds himself with, Living Lands & Waters could not have become the far-reaching institution it is today, and the guy in the spotlight is the first to admit it.

Three people, including his wife, Tammy Becker, manage Pregracke's schedule. When he is not on the water, the Quad-City resident for about two months a year is searching for new waterways to clean, calling sponsors big and small, interviewing potential employees, speaking to students across the U.S. and considering new ways to have an impact.

Chad Pregracke

Chad Pregracke sorts out work site locations with volunteer arborists last month at the 28-acre area just west of Interstate 80 bridge near East Moline.

About a month ago, Pregracke commanded a sold-out crowd of young professionals during a speech at the Moline Public Library.

He walked to the front of the room through a stream of vapor from a fog machine, all while Ted Nugent’s “Stranglehold” blared from a speaker. He shared his story, told of his latest ventures and clearly made an impression, given the number of fans who lined up afterward to snap photos with him.

He skipped town the next week to speak to a standing-room-only crowd at the University of Dayton in Ohio. The week after that, he was jumping out of a helicopter and snowboarding down a mountain with a friend in Canada.

“There’s a lot on my plate all the time, and I’m capable of handling a lot,” he said, “but now it’s getting real busy.”

‘It’s crunch time’

The Living Lands & Waters crew began the final week of a three-week alternative spring break trip for college students this weekend in Memphis, an annual tradition since 2011.

This year’s series of five-day cleanups, which began March 5, drew about 130 students from 15 colleges.

On top of their work with students, the crew hosted community cleanups in Alabama, Kentucky and Tennessee.

As Pregracke assured one job seeker during a Skype interview last month, ‘It’s go, go, go for long periods of time.” Their offseason in the Quad-Cities is increasingly brief.

After lunch at The Edge Eatery and Drinkatorium in Rapids City, where Pregracke, a regular, had to decline free drink offers from owner and friend, Donnie Hunt, he checked on his troops at their shop.

Decorated in graffiti and treasures from the group's adventures on the water, a three-bay garage anchors Living Lands & Waters’ eight-acre property just south of the Mississippi River in East Moline.

Inside, a group of 20- to early 40-somethings were hard at work.

Living Lands & Waters

Volunteer and former crew member Geoff Manis takes a break from welding holes in the false floor of a boat last month at Living Lands & Waters in East Moline. After being with the crew from 2004-2012, Manis since has started a family and works elsewhere in the area, but he still offers his welding skills to help the team prepare for the season.

Chicago-area native Meghan Elgan stapled cushions to benches for their boats, while her boyfriend, David Post of Arkansas, cleaned their boss’ first vessel, which now serves as their DJ boat.

“This is the first boat I started in,” said Pregracke, who formerly worked as a commercial shell diver alongside his older brother, Brent. “I used to pile it full of clams, then started piling garbage in it.”

But the maiden vessel is just one among seven in their fleet, which had to be tuned up for the season before being loaded onto trailers and driven to Memphis.

Moline native John Bostrom, operations manager for Living Lands & Waters, tended to the crew’s signature Chevrolet bus, while volunteer and former crew member Geoff Manis welded holes in the false floors of their work boats.

“It’s crunch time,” said Bostrom, who began working for Pregracke six years ago. “Sitting and doing nothing is not a whole lot of fun.”

In an office attached to the workshop, Shelly Hamm manages Living Lands & Waters’ finances. This year's budget is close to $1.7 million.

According to lore, Hamm helped Pregracke pass seventh-grade math at their school in Hampton, and the classmates reconnected decades later when she joined the team in 2013.

“Everybody comes with a set of skills,” Pregracke said. “If there’s one thing I’m good at, it really is working side-by-side with a lot of great people.”

Retaining a crew

Shortly after arriving at the shop, Pregracke was asked to sit in on a group interview with an applicant from Chicago.

Huddled around a laptop in a cluttered but homey round-table conference room overlooking the workshop, Pregracke, Becker, Dan Breidenstein of Geneseo and Maryland native Monique Dykman conducted the interview.

Becker touched on Pregracke's team-building strategies, skills he later mentioned he hopes to improve upon this year.

“One of the biggest things Chad’s really good at it with our staff is getting to know each person personally, finding out what your interests and what your skills are,” Becker said. “And finding a job within Living Lands that works for you and that you feel really fulfilled in.”

Pregracke stressed that every new employee starts “low on the totem pole” but may eventually create a niche position, based on their strengths.

Living Lands & Waters

From left, programs coordinator Monique Dykman, education coordinator Meghan Elgan and project coordinator Dan Breidenstein work in the conference room at Living Lands & Waters, overlooking the shop floor in East Moline. The team jokingly refers to the space as the fishbowl because of the windows between the shop and conference room. They appreciate, however, being able to work so closely together.

As newbies, not everyone, including Becker, knew how to drive a boat or operate machinery.

Now, the “matriarch” of their 12-person team, Becker “does it all,” Pregracke said, from writing grants to operating the skid steer. 

“I’m just trying to keep up with you,” Becker told her husband, who said he moves "too fast" at times.

This year, Pregracke hopes to touch base with his crew members more often.

“I used to burn a lot of people out,” he said. “I would run them into the ground, and now my goal is to not do that. It wasn’t intentional. It was just the pace we were working at.”

A lot has changed since Pregracke launched his organization as an inexperienced 23-year-old, and he is proud of the progress.

Full-time employees receive benefits, including the option to set up a retirement plan after three years of work, an initiative Pregracke’s board of directors helped implement.

“The thing is, like, I really never have felt like I’m that intelligent at all, but I’m intelligent enough to know that there are a lot of people smarter than I am,” he said. “We have a little more stability, I believe, and people stick around.”

Home sweet home

Although there is plenty of room at the office, Pregracke and Becker opt to work from home, just a stone’s throw from their headquarters.

One afternoon last month, Becker sat on an exercise ball while working on her laptop at the couple’s kitchen table, which looks out over the Mississippi River.

“This is my base,” she said of the four months a year she spends in the Quad-Cities. “I’m here on the computer, where his work takes him out in front of people all the time."

But Pregracke still has a home office in the attic — free of distractions.

“I don’t like looking out a window,” he said. “There’s too much to look at, and I can’t get anything done.”

So, he covers the lone attic window with a sheet. Near his desk, two dry-erase boards, colored with sketches and lists, hang on angled walls.

He said he spent that morning writing thank-you cards to private donors.

Before moving into their current home, the couple lived in the house next to the workshop on Living Lands & Waters’ property, which now serves as the crew's living quarters.

Pregracke’s 21-year-old daughter, Skyler Nitzel, also lives nearby. The youngest crew member, who grew up in East Moline and began working for her father last June, recently returned to school.

Living Lands & Waters

Operations manager John Bostrom and crew member Skyler Nitzel, Chad Pregracke's daughter, work together to upholster bench seats for their work boats at Living Lands & Waters in East Moline. While the crew spends most of the offseason preparing for their river cleanups, it's always crunch time in February before they host a series of alternative spring break trips in Memphis. 

Before spring break, the father-daughter duo checked out a heavy equipment operator training school near Madison in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.

“I like driving the excavator and the skid steer,” said Nitzel, who enrolled in the three-month training school earlier this month.

Before the Wisconsin visit, Nitzel had her wisdom teeth pulled, and her dad checked in on his only child.

They poked fun at each other and laughed together — Pregracke pointing out his daughter's swollen, puffy cheeks.

Nitzel said she enjoys spending time with her father, on and off the clock, adding they make time for concerts and other outings together.

“He’s easy to get along with,” she said.

‘It’s the Love Boat’

Pregracke and Becker first met through mutual friends during their college years. In 2002, he invited her to a cleanup in St. Louis, near her hometown.

Living with her mother at the time and trying to figure out her next step, Becker, who already had worked for the Peace Corps and lived in Denver for a year, said yes.

Things went well, and Pregracke invited her to work and travel with him for an additional five weeks.

“The rest is history,” said Becker, who now has worked for Living Lands & Waters for 14 years.

In May, they will celebrate six years of marriage.

Their relationship sparked a chain reaction of sorts.

In September, Dan Breidenstein, multimedia specialist and project coordinator for Living Lands & Waters, will marry his fiancée, Kate Runge, who used to work for the organization.

They will become the 10th couple to tie the knot after meeting on the barge.

“It’s the Love Boat,” said David Post, the group's director of maintenance, who met his girlfriend, Meghan Elgan, while working and living on the water.

Living Lands & Waters

Director of maintenance David Post walks over to the Living Lands & Waters bus to give a hand to operations manager John Bostrom, who is working on a wiring issue at the shop in East Moline. Prior to launching their 2017 season earlier this month, a handful of crew members worked on projects in the shop, preparing themselves and their equipment for their trip to Memphis.

Although employees get their own room on the house barge, Bostrom, the longtime staffer from Moline, said “space gets to be an issue.”

Pregracke recognizes the living situation can be off-putting for some people. That's why Living Lands & Waters offers a 90-day trial period to new hires.

“It’s a unique job, and it’s not for everybody,” Pregracke said. “There’s not a lot of alone time.”

Branching out

While Living Lands & Waters primarily is known for its river cleanups, Pregracke’s crew has launched a wide range of land-based conservation projects around the Quad-Cities.

Last spring, they harvested and distributed their one-millionth oak tree, a goal of theirs since 2007 when they started their Million Trees project. Since the program's inception, Living Lands & Waters has shipped hundreds of thousands of trees to more than a dozen states in need of vegetation to bolster waterways.

They will begin harvesting new trees this week from their nursery in Davenport, which opened in 2014, planning to deliver more than 100,000 trees in April.

Since 2014, the crew, along with hundreds of volunteers, removed close to 75 acres of invasive honeysuckle at Illiniwek Forest Preserve in Hampton.

“Monotony is not something I’m comfortable with,” Pregracke said. “The basis of what we do is the same, but not what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.”

Chad Pregracke

Chad Pregracke clears branches while volunteer arborists work with him and other Living Lands & Waters crew members last month during the launch of their Interstate 80 restoration project near East Moline.

Then there are Pregracke’s latest passion projects.

Last fall, he approached the city of Davenport with a plan for the barge and port cochere at the former Rhythm City Casino. He proposed developing a floating park on the riverfront, where people could walk, grab a snack or fish, similar to Philadelphia's Spruce Street Harbor Park on the Delaware River waterfront.

He did not submit an official proposal, however, and Davenport Mayor Frank Klipsch declined to permit any discussion about Pregracke's idea at a City Council meeting in November.

“I’m surprised I didn’t get 10 minutes to address the council,” he said months later. “I would’ve raised the money; it would’ve been a turn-key deal.”

Still “super disappointed” that Davenport passed on what he regarded a promising pitch, Pregracke traveled to St. Louis with a set of renderings designed by Muscatine-based Stanley Consultants.

He presented his plans to a group involved with renovating the city's Gateway Arch grounds and riverfront. 

As of last week, Pregracke said he still was waiting to hear from the owners of Rhythm City Casino Resort whether he will take possession of the barge.

“It’s as if I don’t have enough going on,” he said, stressing he would not have profited financially from the project. “Unfortunately, people didn’t want it here, but it’s a good idea, and people will come if you have it.”

Back in the woods

On his way out of the twisted, tangled woods just south of the I-80 bridge, Pregracke spotted a roofing shingle at his feet, evidence of the mess made there last year.

On March 15, 2016, an EF-2 tornado tore through the area, destroying four homes and injuring 10 people.

The storm also uprooted hundreds of trees, not including Pregracke’s cedars, on the two tracks of land owned by the state of Illinois near I-80’s interchange with Illinois 84.

Pregracke and company were in Memphis when the storm hit upper Rock Island County, barely missing their shop. When they came home and assessed the damage, they felt motivated to respond, so they pitched a plan to the Illinois Department of Transportation last fall.

The agency granted Living Lands & Waters permission to work on the state right-of-way, 28 acres in all. To complete the project in two years, they will rely on connections, sponsors and volunteers to remove invasive species while adding native trees, shrubs, grasses and wildflowers.

“If we had to pay for this, we never would have been able to afford it,” said Pregracke, who enlisted organizational assistance from Breidenstein.

For starters, Vermeer Midwest, a tree removal equipment dealer in East Moline, helped recruit about two dozen arborists to cut and clear dead trees one afternoon in late February.

Dan Dykema, parts manager for Vermeer, said Pregracke’s “inspirational” vision makes it easy for him to draw volunteers.

“He just has a way of making people want to help,” Dykema said. “And it wouldn’t have happened if he didn’t do it, because the state doesn’t have any money.”

Living Lands & Waters

Project coordinator Dan Breidenstein helps volunteer arborists unload equipment from the Living Lands & Waters bus last month just west of the Interstate 80 bridge near East Moline. Knowing their limits when it comes to the expertise required to fell and clear trees, the team was able to round up professionals to volunteer their time and knowledge to launch the prairie restoration project.

The day of the event, Pregracke returned from Dayton, Ohio. He grabbed his safety glasses, a helmet and earmuffs and worked in the pouring rain alongside chainsawing arborists.

“These guys are savages,” he said. 

David Rodman, a certified arborist at Rock Island Arsenal, took a day off to lend a hand. The Rapids City resident recalled filming the tornado last year from his backyard, which faces the interstate, and losing power at home.

Now he and thousands of others pass the “eyesore” left behind by the storm at least once a day. The I-80 bridge is the second-busiest river crossing in the Quad-City area, carrying an average of 37,200 vehicles daily, the DOT reports.

Although he never met Pregracke before the cleanup day, Rodman said he could not pass up the “awesome” opportunity to help manage the storm's mess.

“What a cool thing to do,” he said. “It’s the first thing you see coming into Illinois.”

'I'm just getting started'

Their bags were packed before sunrise on March 1, but the last-minute rush was on.

Quad-City transplants Monique Dykman and Meghan Elgan, who spent part of the winter in the Living Lands crew house, hustled to clean out their fridge, brew coffee and submit their hours before locking up and hitting the road for Memphis.

“Need help with anything?” Becker asked. “What can I grab?”

Outside, Mike Coyne-Logan, also known as “Nozzy,” secured his rig for the eight-hour drive. The 10-year veteran of the group said he gets restless, visiting schools in the offseason.

“You get sick and tired of hearing yourself talk about it, and you just want to go and actually do something,” said Nozzy, who led the caravan to Memphis.

Living Lands & Waters

Education coordinator Meghan Elgan shares a few last-minute words with programs coordinator Monique Dykman, left, and programs manager Tammy Becker, right, before departing for Memphis early in the morning on March 1.

Committed to carrying out Pregracke’s mission, Nozzy said their effort “brings people together” wherever they go.

Before the gang headed out, a couple of crew members and a volunteer drove ahead of them to Memphis at the end of last month to check on their barges and make last-minute repairs.

When they arrived, early birds John Bostrom and David Post learned a neighboring vessel on McKellar Lake had struck their house barge at some point during the short offseason. The collision crushed the boat’s hand railings and busted its water pipes.

“It took a pretty big hit,” Post conveyed in a phone call, adding that they were told heavy winds caused the mishap.

“Nobody was around whenever it happened, but it probably would’ve been scary if someone was on board,” he said.

Bostrom said they worked 12-hour days the first week to fix the damage and finish other jobs they had planned before spring break kicked off. Among the improvements, they refinished the boat’s barn-wood floor in its galley, or kitchen.

"Every day is pretty much a workday," Bostrom said. "Sunday is usually a day to catch up on things." 

As Pregracke told the Skype interviewee earlier, “A lot of unexpected things arise” on the water.

“This is not anything typical, but that’s what makes it so great,” he said. “If you’re used to just chilling, sometimes, we don’t have that for a long period of time.”

The night their first week of spring break wrapped up, Bostrom and others found cheap tickets to a Memphis Grizzlies game, while a "worn out" Post was eager to "get horizontal for a bit." 

Numbers the team posts tell the story: In 2016, with the help of almost 3,000 volunteers, Living Lands removed 617,821 pounds of debris at 117 community cleanups.

“I feel like, when I get up in the morning, there is still so much to do, so many people to meet and so many places to go," Pregracke said. "I feel like I’m just getting started.”

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Jack Cullen covers health and the outdoors for the Quad-City Times.