New film 'Watershed Warriors' highlights work of Fox River advocates

When Gary Swick was a teenager in the late 1960s, the Fox River was not healthy.

The river was “a really nasty, polluted place” back then, Swick, now president of Friends of the Fox River, said in the trailer for a new short film, “Watershed Warriors.”

The 12-minute film will be screened at a ticketed event set for 6:30 p.m. Thursday at The Ashbury, 1 Douglas Ave. in Elgin.

Swick said he hopes the film highlights what people across the world can do for the rivers near them while also educating those living throughout the watershed about the natural resource.

Produced as part of a series by, the documentary was filmed by Barrington residents Thomas and Wade Balsamo of World Touch Productions, Swick said.

“They are amplifying our story and getting it to the right audiences. This will give us international exposure” once the film is posted online, Swick said.

Parts of the movie center on Algonquin resident Jenni Kempf. Over 10 days in September, Kempf paddled the entire, 202-mile length of the river. The filmmakers joined her at the beginning of her trip in Waukesha, Wisconsin, later on when she reached the Chain O' Lakes, and again at her journey's end in downstate Ottawa.

While on the Chain, Kempf and her dad, Chris Kempf, picked litter out of the water and dropped the trash off in bins at the parks along the way. If they didn't, Kempf said, the canoe “would have looked like a garbage barge.”

The movie uses her trip as a central theme, toggling back and forth between it and “the work, education and restoration” that Friends of the Fox River has done since it was founded in 1991, she said.

The work includes annual cleanup days, educational programs offered through schools, and the restoration the nonprofit group has advocated for, she said.

When Swick and others started doing river cleanups days, they would pull washing machines and truck axles out of the river, he said.

Since Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, and because of the work of now-deceased activist of Jim Phillips, the large-scale pollution ended, Swick said. Now it is mostly single-use beverage containers that litter the river.

“I'd argue that a rubber tire is more benign than microscopic plies of polystyrene” to the river's health, Swick said. “It is not a lesser threat, but a different one.”

Through partnerships with schools throughout McHenry and Kane counties, the organization invites students into the river and its streams to test the water. Those programs help youth build a relationship with the river, Swick said.

“To care about something, you have to have a relationship with it,” he said.

He'd argue that although the water they are testing may still not be perfect, “fish don't lie. The fish diversity and abundance are increasing” in the river.

The film's message is that volunteers can make a difference to clean up the river around them, including the Fox, Kempf said.

“The more people we have, the more we can do and the more educated the watershed community will be,” she said.

For tickets to Thursday's screening and more information, visit

Jenni Kempf of Algonquin crosses the Wisconsin state line and into McHenry County during a 10-day trip in September down the entire 202-mile Fox River. The trip is highlighted in the new short film, "Watershed Warriors." Courtesy of Jenni Kempf
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