Waukegan's Paul Klonowski helps keep Des Plaines River clean and healthy
As trash collector in chief for nearly 15 years, Paul Klonowski has volunteered and directed efforts to remove tons of debris from the roughly 33 miles the Des Plaines River flows through Lake County.
Though perhaps not atop of the list of pressing local issues, Klonowski's drive and interest for the never-ending task has been a reason for river users and nature lovers of all types to give thanks.
Since 2008, the Waukegan resident has been the volunteer coordinator of the Lake County Forest Preserve District's river stewardship program. The effort has a noticeable impact.
"It's the sort of thing people don't realize -- not only the scenic (aspect) matters, but for the health of the river," said Ann Maine, a longtime county board member and former forest preserve district president.
Besides general trash and debris, volunteers over the years have found and removed a variety of unexpected items: the remains of a 1948 Chevy pickup truck and a mid-1950s BMW Isetta; a 16-foot fiberglass motorboat; lawn mowers; bicycles; small engines; car and appliance parts; picnic tables; safes; three wagon wheels; and countless tires.
"The group is invaluable for keeping the Des Plaines open for paddle sports, and that is a passion for Paul," said David Cassin, the forest preserves' manager of landscape ecology.
"I couldn't even begin to calculate the amount of hours, pounds of garbage or extras Paul has contributed in the 11 years I have known him, and it all started before I even came to the district," he added.
Klonowski's work along the Des Plaines dates back to 2001, when he was canoeing on the river and a group caught up and suggested he volunteer for canoe and kayak instruction.
A float trip soon was planned, and rather than portage through poison ivy, Klonowski thought it would be good to clean up the trash and clear a small log jam.
"We were running programs on the river and thought we should make the river more user friendly," he said. "We just started doing more and more."
By 2008, and with no shortage of work, the river stewardship program was formed. Klonowski, who engineered robot subassemblies used in medical diagnostic devices until retiring about two years ago, was named coordinator.
"I'm the guy who opened his mouth," he joked. "If it wasn't so much fun with the staff and volunteers, I wouldn't be doing it."
Clean up days would begin early and canoes often were piled so high with trash that the paddlers couldn't see where they were going, he said. Several volunteers became chain saw certified in order to clear large log jams and make the river more navigable for recreational uses.
Volunteers come and go and it's always a team effort, but Klonowski has been the constant, spending literally thousands of hours cleaning up the river.
"I find solitude in paddling my canoes," he said. "Before I retired, I called it 'cheaper than therapy.' And clean waterways are much more pleasant than trashy ones."
Tires were a constant find, with the record 40 or so nabbed on one cleanup mission. Another time, 25 tires were removed, with eight left for the next trip because there wasn't any room to transport them.
The big obstacles have been all but cleared from the river, but the effort continues.
"We've had years where we pulled 6,000 pounds of garbage out. This year, I don't think we'll make 500 pounds," Klonowski said.
"To those of us working on this project, especially the long-timers, this represents a clear conclusion: our work is having a great impact," he added.
Maine said the effort became even more noticeable and important as more people began using the river as a resource during the coronavirus pandemic.
"The people, the plants and the animals -- we should all be thankful for what they've done," she said.