Friends of Fox River's passion on display in new film

On a calendar, Earth Day is Saturday, April 22. To those who make a living of fighting back against the harm that sewage, industrial runoff and constant littering inflicts on the Fox River, every day is Earth Day.

Gary Swick, president of Friends of the Fox River for the past 11 years, and Jenni Kempf, director of watershed education for the Friends' and its first full-time employee, certainly embrace the notion that keeping a river clean is a year-round job.

To make that point, Swick and Kempf agreed to be highlighted in "Watershed Warriors," a documentary film from World Touch Productions that will be part of the "Rivers are Life" series. World Touch Productions specializes in creating films for nonprofits that target fundraising.

"We pretty much did what we were told because they wanted to film us just doing the things we normally do along the river," said Swick, a resident of Elgin who has taught environmental science to high school (at Dundee-Crown in Carpentersville) and college students (at Northern Illinois University) for nearly 45 years.

Gary Swick and Jenni Kempf of Friends of the Fox River prep volunteers at a river cleanup event. Courtesy of Friends of the Fox River

Kempf, a resident of Algonquin Shores along the Fox watershed, agreed the film's directors knew what they were looking for.

"It didn't matter to us what they used in the film because we think everything we do is great for the river," she said of the Friends' river cleanup and education efforts. "They captured way more than they could possibly have ended up with in the 12½ minute film."

To make that point, the film, which debuted earlier this week and can be seen at, shows a short segment in which a large tire is embedded along the riverfront. A group of Friends works to remove it, and later an egret lands in that spot.

"It was about four hours of digging to get that tire out, but it's only a segment of a few seconds in the film," Swick said. "But the concept is that if you remove the trash, nature will come."

It's a concept that has motivated Swick most of his adult life, leading him into the world of environmental studies and teaching before learning about Friends of the Fox River and then embracing the concept of teaching kids about water quality monitoring.

And Kempf is an example of what can happen when young people learn about the importance of the river ecosystem. She was one of Swick's students at Dundee-Crown.

"Similar to Gary, I pursued higher education in a different thread, thinking more about policy and environmental health," Kempf said, who has been involved with the Friends for 22 years and worked as an environmental toxicologist at the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene, education coordinator at the Wisconsin Energy Institute and in ecological restoration.

"Now, I am teaching too, working toward shifting toward a culture of river caretakers," said Kempf, whose two young daughters, ages 11 and 5, are noted as "two young environmental protectors and cultivators of joy."

Jenni Kempf of Algonquin pulls her canoe along the Fox river to clean debris. Courtesy of Friends of the Fox River

As two key drivers for the Friends of the Fox River, Swick and Kempf keep an eye on significant projects like the Fox River Ecosystem Partnership's work to designate all, or portions of, the river in Wisconsin and Illinois as a National Park Services' National Water Trail System.

But they are laser-focused on the here and now of getting more Friends of the Fox River members and seeing more young people and adults take part in the river cleanup days. The next two cleanups are scheduled for successive Saturdays, May 13 and 20.

"A really important message that needs to be shared is that the Fox River was in dire shape, but we have been working for 50 years to restore it," Swick said, noting that national conservation group American Rivers in 1999 had declared the Fox River the seventh-most endangered river in the country because of sewage and industrial runoff.

"Since the Clean Water Act (1972), there have been huge improvements, and it is nothing like it was," he said. "In the film, it shows fish had open sores, and you could get infections by going in the water, but that is not the case anymore."

The fish caught in the Fox indicate how the river is faring, Swick noted. "Biologists say the fish don't lie," he added. "That is what we are doing when we take students into the stream - checking the health of the fish and the stream and finding it in our data logs that it is of good quality."

A river cleanup session doesn't always involve digging out tires, shopping carts or washing machines - all things the Friends have encountered in the river over the years. It's become a more difficult and detailed task because of the massive amount of plastic in the river.

"We are picking up thousands of small pieces of plastic in the river," Swick said. "We made some mistakes in inventing plastic bags and foam containers and are now realizing it is a major litter problem. We are changing that culture from its foundation with youths and adults, with the youths educating the adults."

Kempf recently paddled the entire 202-mile stretch of the Fox River with her father. She did some cleanup along the journey, parts of which are featured in the film, by pulling litter from the river and placing the trash in park or trail cans along the river.

"The biggest source of litter is the single-use plastic beverage bottle, hands down," she said. "Nothing else is even close. We have to turn off that tap."

In many ways, the Friends of the Fox River are trying to bring us all back to a place that so many others found to be a pristine source for their lives.

"The first Indigenous people settled here because of this river and the resources that it offered," Swick said. "And people came as tourists because of the river and its resources, and people settled here and built dams to harness energy so that they could live here.

"Now we are reintroducing people to this great river," he added. "We know rivers are the lifeblood of ecosystems everywhere, but unfortunately, also the trash transporters to other bodies of water."

Those interested in donating to the Friends or taking part in a cleanup day can learn more about the organization on the website.

As Swick puts it, "The more friends, the better the protection will be (for the river)."

It's a big coffee morning

If you are looking for a major pick-me-up from coffee Saturday morning, the Geneva Chamber of Commerce offers the perfect brew.

The chamber is bringing back its Coffee Cup Crawl, starting at 10 a.m. Saturday, April 22, at the Geneva Public Library.

That's when Eric Andersen, owner of FreshGround Roasting's Coffee, will give a presentation about coffee with everything you'd ever want to know about its history, how it's grown and processed. Another key factor will be addressed - why it's important to know where your coffee comes from.

After the presentation, the Coffee Cup Crawl takes place from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. around the Fox Valley. A list of 16 businesses participating is available on The chamber also notes that some cups of coffee "will have a kick," which are available only to those 21 and older.

Tickets are available at, and more information is on the site or by calling the chamber office at (630) 232-6060.

Mandrake gets its water

Mandrake's Wine Bar needed a water main extension connected as it moved along with plans to occupy the former Ristorante Chianti site on Third Street in Geneva.

It was impossible not to notice the work at 201 S. Third St. last week. We're so used to road work as soon as spring sets in that a first guess would be that some road or sidewalk work was taking place at that corner.

As it is, if all went as planned with the water connection, we could see Mandrake bring its small plates and cocktails menu to downtown Geneva in late spring or early summer.

That's a big screen

It appears we can count on seeing movies again in Batavia this summer as the massive undertaking at the former Randall 16 site will debut May 31 as Emagine Theatre.

The news hook at the opening event, "A Night on the Red Carpet," is that the Super EMX auditorium will feature the "largest movie theater screen in Illinois." At 94 feet wide, it sounds like an accurate claim to crown this screen the giant of the state.

This will be another theater complex offering recliner seats and even a front row of couch seats.

Tickets for the opening event are $65, with all proceeds benefiting Batavia United Way.

Cocktail or business attire is recommended for attendees. The moviegoers will be offered hors d'oeuvres, an open bar, photo opportunities, unlimited concessions and numerous films to pick from (there are 11 other screens at the site) at the grand opening and ribbon cutting.

It's been a long time since movies were available at 550 N. Randall. Moviegoers and local restaurant owners have to feel pretty good about what this new entertainment complex will offer - and its potential to lure people to a night out.

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