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Best Practices

Best Management Practices for a River Cleanup, as practiced by Headwaters Trails.

A river cleanup guide for kayak and canoe accessability.

These guidelines for best practices are those used by Headwaters Trails when clearing debris and maintaining the Shiawassee River Heritage Water Trail.  They incorporate the Best Management Practices prescribed by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, MDNR.  They are intended to help people who have not been to an MDNR training session understand what should be done when maintaining any river primarily used with canoes, rowboats and kayaks.  Many of the same principles apply to rivers used in powerboat and ship traffic.  Included are practical suggestions with regard to personal safety and the maintenance of equipment as well as techniques and understanding honed by experience.  We recommend that people read these before undertaking a river cleanup on their own because bad practices can cause more harm than good.  It is our goal that the Shiawassee River should continue to be a model for Best Management Practices.

River Considerations:

When clearing a river, as a guiding principle, you should remove as few of the trees and branches in the river as necessary.  In general, you should only be cutting a path wide enough for boats to pass, typically no wider than 10 feet.  The goal of a river cleanup is to make the river navigable, but to not destroy fish and other wildlife habitat, and preserve the banks of the river.  In making the river navigable, it is important to take logs and branches that are cut and anchor them along the banks of the river, preferably, against a bank that the current is cutting.  The more you can protect the banks, the deeper the river will cut to pass the water as opposed to widening and making the river shallower.  A general principle of aquatic engineering is that the narrower the river, the deeper it will be.  This bank protection keeps the water deep enough for fish and by reducing the surface area, keeps the water temperature down, something necessary for healthy fish.  It has the added benefit of keeping the river navigable in low water.  Logs floating down a river will naturally float to the outside banks of curves in the river.  Rather than clear these, they should be made into places that  you can stockpile the logs and branches in the river.  It is far better to accomplish this goal with natural materials as opposed to putting in sheet piling, concrete sea walls or constructed banks made from stones with fencing holding them in place.  Studies of trout streams, show that fish in general stay away from concrete.  Many streams are artificially maintained by cutting the trees and putting in stone embankments.  The removal of the trees warms the water and allows the growth of weeds, something that is bad for the health of the river and the critters that depend upon it as well as making it difficult to paddle.

 Under the law, the owner of the land adjoining the river owns to the middle of the river unless the deed specifies otherwise.  The land owner on whose land sits the root ball of a tree is the owner of that tree that has fallen in the river.  You need his permission to cut the tree.  It is a good idea to get that in writing.  If he is not willing to give that permission, you can always remind him that under common law, people using the river are allowed to portage around those obstacles, even if that means going over his land.  He may want an opening cut in the tree to prevent people from crossing his land.  That portaging over the land is not considered trespassing under the law.  The vast majority of land owners are happy to grant permission to cut their trees in the river and are supportive of those efforts.

 The first step in creating a river stockpile, is to choose the largest and longest logs available and anchor them to act as a barrier in a river bend or the bank of the river where there is a place to anchor it.  This bow structure in a bend, with the bank as the bow and the log as the string, provides places to put the smaller branches.  Often times you can create a place to put brush using a log that is sticking across the river.  Once you cut a passage way through the log, you can tie logs behind it, making an impoundment.  This can be done by using cables to wrap around the logs and then anchor these to trees along the banks or to anchors driven in the river.  With big logs, you may want more than one cable to secure the log firmly to the bank or other logs.  Once in place, you can tie other logs to this one and then stack up smaller brush behind the large logs.  Over time, the logs will become waterlogged and sink to the bottom.  This is desirable.  It prevents the current from cutting under them and attacking the bank.  As these sit on the bottom, sediment can build up behind them and help build the bank back out and allow trees to grow.  In some cases, proper placement of logs with anchors can build sediment back under tree root balls that are being undercut and will eventually fall in the river if not protected.  The rotting wood provides shelter for some fish and hiding spots for others, as well as a source of food.  As the logs rot, the critters that eat the rotting logs are eaten by the fish.

Use 1 x 19 3/32 galvanized steel wire rope or thicker.  Single strand wire fatigues out much quicker than you will want.  This stranded 1 x 19 cable (McMaster-Carr 3498t62) has a 1200 pound breaking strength, something that is needed in flood stage and in the winter when ice flows back up against the logs.  3/32 oval copper sleeves (McMaster Carr 3897t23) can be used to form loops on the end of the cable.  It is a good idea to have different length cables available, such as 10 foot and 6 foot pieces.  The loops on the end allow you to loop cables together if not long enough.  Painting the cables with different colored spray paint, will allow you to keep track of which are long and which are short.  I typically use yellow for 6' cables and no paint for 10' cables.  When tying a log, loop the cables around the log then push one end through the loop on the end of the cable.  This acts as a choker that holds for a long time, even when the log starts to rot away.

River Cleanup Best Practices - tying logs together  River cleanup best practices - securing logs with cables and straps The galvanizing will let the cable last for many years before rusting through.  Do not use stainless steel or plastic coated cable because you want the steel to eventually rust away but hold while in use.  A piece of stainless will become a hazard many years after the log has completely disappeared.  Plastic coated cables don't hold well.   The other end of the cable can be attached to a tree or an anchor in the river.  Duck Bill anchors or others of similar design that can be hammered down into soft soil with a long rod, that have a cable attached to them.  These are useful where ever you want to place logs where there are no trees to attach to.  It is a good idea to use perforated steel rigid straps to secure the cables to the logs and also to the nearest trees.  These are typically cut into strips with six holes per piece (McMaster Carr 9600t51 strapping) for small logs.  Double these up because they tend to rust fairly quickly due to their thin design.  Use two pieces and position so that the nails go through two strips, to make sure that the strap lasts for a reasonably long time and six nails give you plenty of bite into the wood.  Use spiral shank nails, they don't pull out as easily as smooth nails.  Keep a selection of from 5" to 10" long nails.  If the log is partly rotted, use the longer nails and straps with larger holes.  River Cleanup Best Practices - cable end  The nails and straps will eventually rust away.  Bending over nails instead of using straps doesn't work very well.  The bent nails frequently break in the bend due to the hardening of the nail and it takes very little rotting of the wood to release the cable.  With large spikes, strapping with larger holes works best.  It is difficult to drive the spikes through the straps with small holes.

 Long term protection of the river requires more than just removing log jams and pulling out debris.  If possible, you want to work with land owners to allow you to plant trees along the banks of the river.  Lawns with trees along the banks of the river are stable.  Lawns without trees produce unstable banks that erode easily.  These need to be water tolerant trees, such as willow and cedar.  They should be trees that are not having problems with fungi and insects, such as elm or ash trees.  Whenever possible, plant native trees, not invasives like autumn olive or buckthorn.  Various wetland bushes grow quickly and make good companion plantings.  The roots will stabilize the soil and slow erosion.  The roots pull some of the excess nutrients from the water that cause excessive weed growth.  The shade from these trees, will help keep the water cool and shade out aquatic weed growth.  Often, it is necessary to put posts and fences around these trees till they get to around 10 feet tall to keep the deer from eating them in the winter.  Still, after they have grown, in some areas, the deer and rabbits will eat the bark off the trees in the winter, killing the trees.  There are methods of protecting the trees from deer, such as wrapping the trunks and spraying the trees with any number of compounds, like soapy water, to keep the deer from eating them, but most of these wash off and need to be reapplied frequently.  Some people claim that you can leave bags tied to the branches of trees with rotting meat in them to keep the deer away.  It may work, but it does leave an unpleasant smell along the river you are trying to enjoy.  The tried and true method involves 6 foot high fencing strung around three seven foot "T" posts with the tree in the center.  In some cases you can protect the trees by planting black berries and other bushes that have thorns, though you want to make sure that those you plant are natives and not invasive plants like autumn olive.  You can always just plant trees in areas that have lost trees due to disease or wind storms by cutting some willow branches and sticking them into wet soil.  This works best in the spring.  Willow will sprout a tree from a fresh stick, as anyone who has put pussy willows in water will have experienced.  These trees are adapted to live in water saturated soils.

Typically, where you see long stretches of river with cut lawns lacking trees, that go up to the river, you will see erosion that has widened and shallowed the river.  Judicious anchoring of logs and placement of rocks can help reverse that trend.  In some streams, people advocate making barriers along the edges, out of straw bales held down by stakes.  In high water, mud gets deposited above the bales, keeping it out of the main channel.  Ideally, you can establish cat tails, wild rice, and other native wetland plants to keep the sediment out of the river long after the straw has rotted away.  These native plants not only hold the sediments back, they provide food for birds and nesting places.

 When dealing with rocks in the river, it is a bad idea to remove them from the river.  Rocks make ideal bank protection, but are also necessary for the growth of many beneficial insects, such as dragon flies, and provide places for fish to lay eggs and seek protection from the current.  A healthy stream is one that has clean gravel on the bottom.

 It is generally a good idea to protect beaver dams where possible. Beaver Dam These animals hold back the water for long distances, keeping the river deep enough to paddle.  These impoundments regulate the water flow in that they hold back water from high flow periods so that in dry weather, there is water for the river to draw upon.  This water is not only held in the wetlands created by the beaver's flooding, the higher water recharges the permeable soils around the wetlands.  When water levels drop, water stored in the soil surrounding the wetland then slowly flows back into the river, maintaining a constant and more uniform flow.  That water held in the soil tends to be cooler than water in the wetlands and helps keep the water temperature down.  The dams that the beavers create, catch debris that then rots in place.  In general, it is far easier to cross a beaver dam than a log jam.  Beavers often get a bad rap when these dams collapse and cause flooding.  More often than not, beaver dams collapse when humans do something to destroy these dams because they do not want their property flooded.  It is not faulty engineering on the part of the beavers.  Public education is needed to keep people from destroying the dams and trapping the beavers.  Any good fisherman knows that the best place in a river to fish is near the beaver dams and lodges.

Beavers do cut down trees.  They need these for their dams and to eat.  Where ever possible, replant trees not only right next to the banks of the river but also in the upland.

Tools:

Generally, when hand saws and clippers are no longer sufficient to cut logs, it is a good idea to use a chain saw.  When chain sawing in the river, one of the problems is that if the tree breaks or moves in the wrong direction it can pinch your saw.  To prevent this from happening, plastic chainsaw wedges work well.  Do not use metal wedges.  These can be dangerous if the saw hits them and they most assuredly will dull the saw blade.  Make the cut deep enough to have the saw and the wedge in the slot, then stop cutting and pound the wedge in.  When you restart, you are significantly less likely to pinch the saw.  When the log drops, the wedges typically fall into the water.  Never try to grab a wedge before it falls in or while the saw is running.  That is a good way to lose fingers.  In shallow water, they may not be hard to find, but more often than not, the water is deep enough that the wedges can be lost.  Drilling a small hole in the side of the wedge near the top and then gluing in a piece of fishing line gives you something to help you find that wedge again.  Putting a bobber on the opposite end of the line means that the wedge, line and bobber can fall in the river and yet be easy to find afterward.  It is usually a good idea to carry at least two chain saws with spare chains available.  No matter how hard you try and how thoroughly you plan, you will find that you will occasionally still get a saw stuck in a log.  A second saw gives you the option of cutting the saw back out of the wood.  Otherwise, you may end up leaving the bar and chain stuck in a log somewhere.

When using a chainsaw in the river, you always want to cut wood above the waterline if possible.  Often times it is not possible.  In that case, you need to consider that a chainsaw needs much more power to cut in water than in air.  This is for two reasons.  The water itself consumes energy as the blade paddles through it, and the bar stops getting oil once it is in the water because of the way saws put oil on the chains.  Water is a poor lubricant.  You will see your chains and bars wear quickly when used in the water.  Once you pull the blade out of the water, it is a good idea to let the blade free spin for 10 seconds or more to get oil back on the blade and in the groove of the bar.  Failing to do this can result in excess rust that will again reduce the life of the bar and chain.  If your bar has places to inject grease, you should do this frequently.  The grease does not wash out of the bar anywhere near as easily as does the oil.  

A general pointer on chainsaws.  Always use the highest octane gas you can get and make sure that the gas is fresh and that you have stored it in a container that does not have an open top.  A metal "Type I" or higher can is a good option.  The reason for the closed top is that gas loses octane as it evaporates.  The reason for the high octane  is so that the engine will not backfire and spin backwards, pulling the cord out of your hand as you try to start it.  This can and has caused sprained and bruised fingers, with the potential for breakage of fingers and damage to the saw.  It happens because low octane gas ignites prematurely, before the piston passes top dead center.  High octane gas is by definition,  gasoline that is resistant to pre-ignition.  Most chainsaws currently made require high octane gas.  Preventing pre-ignition stops knocking that can burn a hole in your piston as an added benefit.  If your saw has been sitting for a long time with gas in it, that gas will have lost some octane and can be a problem.  It is best to run a saw dry before storing it,  Alternatively, Briggs and Stratton makes a product called Advanced Formula Fuel Treatment, that will keep the gas fresh for a year or more (they claim 3 years), which has been stored in a sealed container.  In theory, this new formulation works with the newer fuel being sold that has ethanol added to it, better than older formulations like Stabil(tm).  In theory, it prevents corrosion that ethanol can cause.

Cutting logs in deep water is something of a special skill.  It may mean that you need to cut from a boat.  In that instance, be sure that the boat you are in is either big enough that it is stable with you cutting off the side or you have another boat tied to it for stability.  You always want the boat held firmly in position, with anchors, a person holding it, or ropes from the shore.  Flipping a boat with a running chainsaw can be extremely dangerous.

Always carry a loggers first aid kit when using a saw and check it before you go out to make sure that it is fully stocked and that none of the bandages have been gotten wet.  Most first aid kits are only slightly water resistant.  Keep them in a dry bag or other container when on the water.  Always wear safety glasses, ear plugs and gloves when using a chain saw.  Gloves are especially necessary if you attempt to change a chain while your hands are wet.  The water softens them so that they are easily cut and sharp chains do that well.  You should always work in at least pairs, so that if one is hurt, the other can help and call for help.  You should always carry a cell phone in a waterproof container with you in case you need emergency help.  Always be aware of the people around you when using a chain saw.  You don't want to accidentally cut them with the saw nor drop something on them with it.  Chain saw manufacturers like Stihl, have safety videos that you can request.  It is a good idea to have anyone using a chainsaw review these safety videos before going out with a chainsaw.

If you are standing on a log with a running saw and you start to fall into the river, there may not be time to shut off the saw.  Whatever you do, toss it a safe distance from you.  When possible, turn it off first.  You do not want to fall onto a chainsaw blade, running or not.  It is better to risk damaging the saw than risk losing a limb or getting a severe cut that requires stitches.  Make sure that the people around you give you room to toss the saw before you get into trouble.

If you should accidentally submerge your saw, you need to pull the spark plug immediately, dry it with a lighter if you have one and if not just blow on the tip to dry it off and wipe the outside with something dry.  Pull the cord on the saw a few times to flush out the water, and reassemble.  After this, start the saw again immediately.  Failure to do this can ruin a saw because the water will get in the piston rings and in the bearings, allowing rust to form.  Dunking a hard running saw into the water such that water gets into the intake, will usually destroy the piston and crank

It is a good idea to carry trash bags for the small trash.  Canoes and rowboats are handy for the larger items, like tires and other big trash.  When paddling, you can use trash grabbers to get at small trash, like plastic bottles in the weeds and bushes along the river.  

We use Lansing Forge aluminum tie tongs Best Practices River Cleanup - using tie tongs to move log for moving submerged logs.  Tie tongs are designed for moving railroad ties, but they work well on logs.  They are especially nice when the log is in water deeper than waist deep and you need to grab hold of it.  Bending down without tie tongs will probably mean that you stick your face in the water.  That can easily result in you losing your glasses.  The tie tongs also prevent you from having to bend a lot to pick up logs, helping prevent back injuries.  Lansing Forge Tie Tongs help when the logs are slippery and can handle two people pulling on them.  They are able to lift 1800 pounds without bending or twisting.  Other brands of aluminum and steel tongs exist.  These are the ones we use.

Safety:

What to wear:

Long shirts and long pants help keep you from getting poison ivy or scratches from the brush and logs you move.  The best ones to wear are ones that do not hold water.  Most synthetics will drain quickly once you get out of the water.  Wool holds water but also retains heat, so although it will get heavy, it will still keep you warm.  Cotton does not drain easily and can cool you down dramatically.  Gloves are important when you may be lifting something unseen that you may find under the water or something that may have sharp edges or nails.  Tetanus is a real concern if you get cut in the water.  Likewise, sturdy boots or shoes that will not easily pull off are a good idea.  It is not uncommon to step in soft mud that really holds onto your shoes.  You may step on something sharp in the water like glass from a bottle or an old board with a nail sticking up.  If you are not a strong swimmer, you should wear a life vest all the time.   

What to bring:
 If you have one, you should carry a cell phone in a watertight container along with a map of the river.  It may be needed if you have to try to tell a rescuer where you are at.  

Always carry a first aid kit in the river.  It should be in a water tight container.  If chainsawing, you should consider buying a Loggers First Aid Kit.  This has supplies for more serious injuries that you may have when chain sawing.  Always open your first aid kit and inspect it before going out on the river.  Check that it has not gotten wet and that you have all the supplies needed. Wear glasses when working with a saw.  Ear plugs are a good idea.  Stihl makes chainsaw chaps that can help prevent you from hitting your leg with a saw, though they are not very practical in deep water.

When working in the river, good planning is important.  That includes planning for the weather and other hazards along the way.  Although it is safe to work while it is raining, it is not safe to work when there is lightning or even a threat of lightning.  At the first sign of lightning, get out of the water and seek cover.  On cold days, make sure you have towels in plastic bags to dry off with.  Plastic space blankets can prevent hypothermia if the weather cools down or if it just is cooler than you anticipated.  Energy bars, granola bars or even candy bars of any sort will help you warm back up again and restore your energy.  It is a good idea to wear clothing that will not absorb water, so that you will not cool down while you are waiting to dry off.  You should always carry water with you in bottles so that you can rehydrate.  Working hard in the water can easily lead to dehydration.  If you are allergic to poison ivy, stay away from it, but also put on ivy block.  When out of the water, if you have been exposed, use something like Technu or Fels Naptha oil soap to thoroughly clean your skin.  Don't take chances, you may regret it.  You may want to take sun block and mosquito repellent.  Hats keep bugs out of your hair and shade your eyes from the bright sun.  

Never go out on the river to do a cleanup late in the evening when you are not already pretty sure what you will encounter.  Once the sun goes down, it gets cold in a hurry.  Hypothermia can kill.  Know the signs of it.  Be prepared to deal with it in cooler weather.  Never use a chain saw after dark.  They are too dangerous to take chances with.

Chainsawing:
Always practice shutting a saw off before using it in the river.  If you lose your balance or get stuck in the mud, you want to be able to quickly shut off the saw so that you don't cut yourself or others trying to help you.  When carrying a saw, you should have the blade covered in a scabbard when the saw is not in use.  These blades are sharp and can really injure you or someone with you if fallen upon or if they get pushed up against someone.  If you cut yourself anything more than a scratch, with a chainsaw, go to the hospital.  The teeth can drive debris under your skin and generally stitches will help it heal.  
Team Work:
When working on the river, you should always let someone know when to expect you back and where you are going.  If you do not arrive on time, they know where to send someone looking.  Never work in the water by yourself, especially if using a chainsaw.  If you injure yourself with a saw, you need someone that can give you first aid and get you out of there or call for help.  When working in the water, it is a bad idea to try to move all of the logs by yourself.  If one starts to get away, it could push you under if you are in front of it.  If the bottom is soft, it may be difficult to get back up to the surface.  A buddy working with you can help.  By yourself, you might drown.  I have found that sometimes when walking in the river, I hit deep soft mud that freezes my feet in place.  With a buddy around, I can hand him my saw before I try to extricate myself.  The swifter the water, the more you and your buddy need to stay together.  In some conditions, you may want a safety line and a safety belt or harness.  A buddy can watch for signs of hypothermia in you and you him, in cooler weather.  Not all rivers are warm and even normally warm ones are still cold in the spring.

Know your limits and those of your buddy or buddies.  The conditions greatly affect your safety.  The deeper and faster the water, the more dangerous and the more you need to watch out for others.  Keep in mind that shorter people are more likely to get swept off their feet or get in over their heads than are taller people.
Use Caution clearing log jams:
Always be careful when clearing log jams.  If the current is swift, you might get sucked under.  A life vest may not help then.  Good swimmer or not, that can get you caught where you may drown.  In fast water, use a safety line or stay out of the river till it slows down.

Log jams catch the floating debris that comes down the river.  That means that that there may be boards or logs with nails stick out.  Glass bottles and metal cans present a risk of cutting yourself if you are not paying attention.  

Log jams are places that attract animals.  You may encounter a snake in the log jam.  The best way of preventing yourself from getting bitten is to see the snake first.  He will usually move else where with only a little prodding.   Be prepared to encounter very large spiders in log jams.  They can give a painful bite but mostly are more afraid of you than you of them.  Mostly, you don't want to panic after seeing one and become a hazard to yourself and others.  Again, being aware is the best defense.  When possible, use tongs for reaching into the unknown.
Out of State:
In Michigan, we do not have dangerous fish in the water.  If you work in places like Pennsylvania, Louisiana or anywhere near the ocean, there is always the possibility that sharks  can come in with the tide or there may be alligators.  Those are special conditions that are not addressed here.


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