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“I just wanted to get the river clean, but I’ve fallen in love with all these rivers.”



TRAVERSE CITY — Renowned local litter picker Norm Fred has a reputation as a volunteer extraordinaire.

Not only does he spend countless hours focused on bettering the natural world around him in northwest Lower Michigan, he inspires others to adopt rivers and forests and take better care of the environment. He’s been likened to both a saint and a rock star.

Fred, 80, is a retired dentist who 15 years ago founded the Boardman River Clean Sweep, an annual springtime event when volunteers scour miles and miles of the Grand Traverse County river to collect any trash they can find.

It all started with an organized trip down the river with the Traverse Area Paddle Club — a trip during which Fred said he lagged behind.

“I’d be paddling down the river and I’d see some trash and think, ‘Well, I can’t leave that,’ so I’d paddle over and pick it up,” he said.

It actually created a bit of a conflict, Fred said.

The leader of the trip kept having to paddle back upriver to find Fred and shoo him back into the group. He was holding up the paddle trip and aggravated her, he said, laughing.

It wasn’t long before he was dubbed the club’s river cleanup coordinator, and Fred said he was off and running, or paddling as it were.

Fred said the first year was 2004 and a few volunteers showed up.

That helped him realize the whole river could be cleaned up in a single day with eight paddlers to divvy up four sections of the stream between the river’s mouth on West Grand Traverse Bay and the Forks, where the North and South branches of the Boardman River converge.

Word got around about the project and when the cleanup in 2005 arrived, he said 80 people showed up, and it took him by surprise.

“I could do other things. I have other interests,” Fred said. “But I think it’s the momentum.”

There’s no stopping things now.

“When we first started we would fill Dumpsters and Dumpsters,” Fred said.

“Now we have trouble filling up a fouryard container.”

Large trash items like abandoned safes, tires and even old, sunken canoes have been pulled from the coldwater stream. Now the Boardman River cleanup volunteers find items lost by paddlers and anglers, such as wallets, keys, shoes and smartphones.

“We’ve found thousand-dollar iPhones,” Fred said, joking about how none have ever turned on.

Today Fred said he helps to organize cleanup events on 20 rivers from Gladwin to Wolverine and Lewiston to the Lake Michigan shoreline. He even took on the cleanup of public forest dumping grounds and rousted up dozens of corporate sponsors for his many cleanup efforts.

“I just wanted to get the river clean, but I’ve fallen in love with all these


Norm Fred, organizer of the Boardman River Clean Sweep.

Record-Eagle/Jan-Michael Stump

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rivers,” Fred said.

It’s good for the whole region that he did, others agree.

“I have known Norm for almost 20 years and have seen him throw his heart and soul into keeping northern Michigan rivers clean,” said Lois Goldstein, the paddle club’s outings chairwoman.

Fred organizes about 20 cleanup events every year across the region and Goldstein said that without his leadership, tasks would never get done.

Even conservation officials believe Fred’s volunteerism is without comparison.

“He’s very dedicated to keeping northern Michigan rivers clean and pristine,” said Steve Largent, Boardman River program coordinator for the Grand Traverse Conservation District.

“It’s made a huge difference, not only in the river but also in the forests,” Largent said. “It’s impactful and it’s also contagious.”

Fred was instrumental in the cleanup of illegal Hoosier Valley forest dump sites and also in the picking up of large amounts of debris from flooding from the collapse of the Brown Bridge Dam drawdown structure in 2012, Largent said. “The world’s a better place because of him,” Largent said.

Ada Takacs, local volunteer coordinator with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, said Fred is well-known as the volunteer champion of both river and forest cleanups.

In 2009, the DNR identified Grand Traverse County as home to more illegal dump sites than any other county in the state.

That just wasn’t going to do for Fred and he helped to turn that statistic around, Takacs said.

“Norm found out and wasn’t going to have that,” she said.

Fred organized volunteers to take on the dump sites, including local homeless residents, Takacs said.

“He even goes on Google Earth to look for more trash piles,” she said.

“Norm is definitely a Grand Traverse County rock star,” Takacs said. “If we had a Norm Fred in every county, we wouldn’t have any illegal dump sites anywhere in Michigan.”

Fred said what he’s most proud of is how he’s been able to foster six or seven other groups into adopting various river and forest cleanup efforts.

There’s both that and also inspiring participants to become environmental advocates every time they are outdoors.

“Every person who comes to one of these cleanups will never again throw anything in a river ever again. And then if they are out on a river and see litter, they will be more likely to pick it up,” Fred said, as a grin spread across his bearded face.

Norm Fred, organizer of the Boardman River Clean Sweep.

Record-Eagle/Jan-Michael Stump

Ellen Roberts, left, and Boardman River Clean Sweep Chairman Norm Fred pick up litter downstream from the South Union Street — Boardman River Bridge during the 11th annual Boardman River Clean Sweep in Traverse City.

Record-Eagle/Jan-Michael Stump

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