Cleaning up the Milwaukee River Basin, made up of the Menomonee, Kinnickinnic and Milwaukee Rivers, has become a decades-long endeavor.
Over time crews have removed dams, hauled out contaminated sediment and naturalized some stretches of once concrete-lined waterways.
Volunteers have also played a part. Saturday marked the 21st annual cleanup coordinated by the group Milwaukee Riverkeeper.
Teams slipped on gloves and boots to remove debris by the bagful at sites from Campbellsport south to Cudahy.
It was site captain Mitch Kulis' third cleanup.
"This is my site, the UWM Park N Ride at Capitol and Humboldt." Kulis adds, "Most years I'll have walkers by, they'll just stop whatever they're doing, grab a bag and help out."
UW grad Carolyn Thanig volunteered for the first time. "Because I love the rivers," she says.
Thanig pulls one of her unusual finds out of her backpack. "I found a squirrel skull. It's got its yellow front teeth and all of its molars," she proudly says.
Matthew Groppi grew up fishing Milwaukee's rivers. Now a conservation warden with Wisconsin's DNR, Groppi says he's delighted to be back. "I've been with the department for eight years now, so when I transferred in to Milwaukee, I knew about the event, wanted to get involved. So I helped organize a lot of people from our department to come out and assist," Groppi says.
Fisheries technician Tom Burzynski was among them. "Fish may get tangled in old fishing line, six-pack rings, obviously we've seen fish get caught in those. So just from that standpoint it's important to remove the trash," he says.
Burzyski says the effort has even deeper meaning.
"Getting attention to the river and looking at cleanups that have taken place on Lincoln Park on the impoundment for Estabrook [Dam] further upriver. Those all have impacts on the fishery down here, the better off the fishery will be. Both from the fishes' standpoint from certain health effects, but from the angler's standpoint in being able to consume more fish, the fewer fish we can have on the consumption advisory, the better," Burzynski says.
I found siblings Annie and Eleanor Grace Jerbi relaxing after a full morning on the Milwaukee River. They had volunteered for the first time.
"Me and my sister and my friend found this little trail down to this swampy area and there was a whole bunch of Styrofoam," Eleanor says.
"And," Annie adds, "we found a new place that had so much garbage, a lot of Styrofoam cups and plates, and that wasn't good."
Their team filled two 25-gallon bags of the stuff.
"There's this little riverish pond and that was really cool, because from up where we were, it looked really pretty, except for the trash," Annie says.
Eleanor says they plan to come back. "To pick up trash and also to try and go fishing," she says.
Interesting finds among the heaps of garbage picked up throughout the Milwaukee River Basin Saturday included a couch, a sled and what looked like a Chia Pet, but under closer examination turned out to be a moss-covered baseball on which new vegetation was growing.