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.”
In the days and weeks after its release, Swick said he hopes the film highlights what people across the world can do for the rivers near them while educating McHenry County residents and those throughout the watershed about the natural resource.
“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.
Fish don’t lie. The fish diversity and abundance are increasing.”— Friends of the Fox River President Gary Swick
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, once in the middle on the Chain O’ Lakes and again at the end in Ottawa.
Kempf, paddling with her dad, Chris, that day, crossed into McHenry County on Sept. 12. They did 29 miles that first day to the lock in McHenry. On Sept. 13, she ended the local stretch at the Algonquin dam.
While on the Chain, they 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 the cleanup days the nonprofit does every year, the educational programs offered through schools, and the restoration it 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 Jim Phillips known as The Fox, the large-scale pollution ended, he said.
Now, Swick said, it is 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, including Johnsburg Middle School, Nippersink Middle School in Richmond, McHenry High School and many others 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, Swick said.
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,” Kempf said.