Restoration on the Rappahannock River

Posted September 3

— Clear shallow water captured sun beams on a recent morning on the Rappahannock River in eastern Culpeper County, highlighting a sandy bottom, tiny shells, the occasional jumping fish and left-behind trash like mud-logged tires and rusty soda cans.

Army veteran Jeanine Meerscheidt, of Fredericksburg, was on site as part of a seven-member crew in canoes employed by Orange-based StreamSweepers, a river maintenance and restoration Job Corps that not only helps local waterways, but the very people removing the rubbish.

She "found" the organization a few months ago after her 22-year-old son, Brandon, died in February following a tragic climbing accident in Grayson Highlands State Park.

Not a combat veteran, Meerscheidt said losing her son made her feel like she knew what it was like to go to war. "To lose somebody that close to you, what do you do? How do you manage that?" she said.

A chemistry major and honors graduate of Virginia Tech, Brandon Meerscheidt had a passion for science and being in a boat on the water as part of the college crew team. He also participated in crew at Hickory High School in Chesapeake before having to give it up when his Army family moved to Fredericksburg, where he graduated from Chancellor High School.

Brandon Meerscheidt was eager to resume his participation in the rowing sport when he started at Tech, and was so dedicated to the team that he won the first award - named for him - in 2016. Brandon had a bright future as a chemistry field engineer and was an avid volunteer who cared about the environment. But when the young man's life was cut short his mother struggled to find her way.

Jeanine Meerscheidt asked her son in heaven to help her, and he must have heard the request. Through her involvement with another water-related group for veterans in Fredericksburg, Meerscheidt was wandering around one day on the river and came in contact with the StreamSweepers.

"It was like Brandon was guiding me," she said. "I can't be angry about what happened. I just have to make the difference for him that he would have been able to make if he were alive. I would clean up every river if I had the time."

Ecological entrepreneur Mike Collins, of Orange, co-founded StreamSweepers 11 years ago with two others as part of his life's work integrating human health with environmental wellness. He's also involved with a landscape service, wildlife co-op and alternative energy program.

"We're focused on healing people and nature at the same time," he said.

Since forming, StreamSweepers has removed tons of trash from local rivers - between 10 and 20 tons, on average, every summer.

"There is no question we we've made a difference," Collins said, noting it's hard to quantify the impact of removing thousands of tires from area waterways. "The bigger thing that StreamSweepers has done is not the environmental story - it's the healing. As these folks heal the river, they heal themselves. This is therapeutic for the person and the river."

Brandon Meerscheidt's younger sister, Kiera, agreed as she too got a job with StreamSweepers as an outlet for her grief.

"It's really peaceful just to be out on the water," she said. "I can think about my brother and know that he would absolutely love doing something like this so it makes me feel more connected with him. It takes my mind off the bad stuff and I think about the good stuff in life."

A senior at the University of Mary Washington majoring in business, Kiera Meerscheidt is also a lifeguard who taught her brother how to swim during his senior year in high school.

"He was my hero," she said. "I looked up to him."

Dimeair Johnson, of Orange, was looking for a new beginning after serving four years in jail for robbery. Standing along the Rappahannock River, insects singing a summer song, the 28-year-old shared how he got in with the wrong crowd and how StreamSweepers gave him a chance at redemption.

"This is my first time being home now for two months - I have three jobs. This is No. 1," said Johnson, a 2008 graduate of Orange County High School who was on the swim team. "I love getting debris and tires out of the water. I just want to make a change for convicts like me because I believe that even though we are going through the darkness, there's always light at the end of the tunnel."

Working for StreamSweepers has been life-changing, he said.

"We all work hard as a team and we all know each other's strengths and weaknesses," said Johnson.

He dreams of opening his own cleaning business and plans on taking college classes toward a nursing certification. Johnson, who also works as a cook and buffing floors for large stores, said his criminal past is in the past.

"It's definitely behind me now," he said. "I was young, out-of-control and hanging with the wrong people. I suggest hanging out with go-getters, people out there doing something positive. I never let them down yet," Johnson said of the StreamSweepers team. "Every day we are learning new ideas to help improve the river."

The power of one aware mind is unlimited, said Collins in talking about the value of the program.

"Probably the most powerful thing that we do is training folks how in their future they can be entrepreneurs and not only take care of themselves, but take care of their communities and take care of nature."

On the recent clean-up day, the StreamSweepers workers lifted at least a dozen tires out of the river along about a quarter-mile stretch at the Rappahannock River Campground in about an hour's time. Each find generated a flurry of splashing activity among the workers and exclamations of, "Tire!" echoing up and down the waterway where tiny frogs jumped and sunned on the banks.

Madison resident Lisa Dornon, a mother of seven children, quickly emerged as a leader among the crew with her good-natured demeanor, humor and willingness to get dirty. She listed off the things they've pulled from rivers this summer: chairs, carpet, tents, fishing poles, tackle boxes, gold pans, sleeping bags, buckets, cups, bottles, canteens, baby dolls, traffic cones, a garbage cart, newspaper stand and even an port-a-potty.

"We do find a lot of underwear hanging in trees," Dornon said. "You'd be amazed at what you find. If you are entirely broke, you could probably furnish your entire home with what we find in the river."

She got a job with StreamSweepers because it's personal.

"I live on the Rapidan and the Robinson - where they meet - and my kids swim in the river, we fish in the river and we're always finding stuff in there," Dornon said. "I figured, ok, why not do the same thing with helping clean other rivers?"

This summer, StreamSweepers has worked sections of the Rappahannock, Rapidan, Robinson and Hughes rivers in Culpeper, Fauquier, Rappahannock, Spotsylvania and Stafford counties, according to program manager Deb Manzari. It was their first time letting out at the Rappahannock River Campground run by Steve L. Walker for the past 20 years.

"The tires leak a lot of toxic compounds, and there's other things in there like car batteries," Manzari said. "We have also found pesticide chemicals in a big can. None of that can be good in there. People enjoy the river and once we get the trash out it will keep it cleaner."

She estimated each StreamSweeper lifts an estimated 300 pounds of trash per day out of the river. There is no government program to clean drinking water, noted Collins, a former science teacher at Culpeper Middle School.

"These rivers have never been comprehensively cleaned so the trash has accumulated over hundreds of years," he said.

Walker certainly welcomed the work done at his campground located at the gateway to the Rappahannock River fords in eastern Culpeper, a topic about which he wrote a book.

"This area is truly a neck of land located between two rivers," he wrote in "The Lower Rappahannock River Fords of Culpeper County," published in 2010. "The beginning of the neck, which is its narrowest point, is only two miles wide. From there, the land broadens out then narrows back down at the confluence of the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers. Because the rivers limited access to the region, it has always been sparsely populated; the soils are infertile so it has remained heavily forested."

Within the forests around the stretch of river is Native American, gold rush and Civil War history - the Neck has it all, the book says, including various crossings that facilitated transportation. "But most important, the fords on the Rappahannock River have a story," the book says.

Jeanine Meerscheidt hoped her work on the river would honor her son's story.

"We are cleaning up the environment. I manage," she said, crying. "I know Brandon would be proud."

Dominion Energy has supported the multi-pronged beneficial efforts of StreamSweepers for several years, including with a $50,000 grant this year. Company spokesman Rayhan Daudani joined the crew for the recent float in Richardsville along with several cameramen documenting the day.

"One of the things we always look for is anything that's going to improve the environment, help people access the environment and teach them a little bit about the nature that's around them," he said. "So this is a no-brainer. The rivers are a great resource for everyone."


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