We asked volunteers with our Wild and Scenic Rivers project to share their favorite river stories. Enjoy the winning submission, a tribute to an outstandingly dedicated friend of the Red River in Kentucky by Laura Gregory, Kentucky Waterways Alliance Red River Watershed Coordinator. 

The Upper Red River is an utterly gorgeous and wooly section of the Red River and the nationally designated Wild & Scenic section. It runs through Clifty Wilderness, surrounded by cliffs and beautiful undercut boulders. Unfortunately, it is still subject to careless, discarded garbage. Year after year, for 25 years, one incredible person has organized an Upper Red cleanup on Mother’s Day weekend. It is a cleanup for the zaniest volunteers and it has inspired the newest iteration of Friends of Red River.

He’s been called “River Cowboy,” a “Gentle Man,” “Front Page Miller,” and “Sisyphus.” He’s also been called “an adopted son of Wolfe County.” But don’t ever call him late for dinner. He is Russ Miller and he has done more than any single person to clean up Kentucky’s cherished, nationally protected Wild & Scenic Red River. Russ asks for little, but gives a lot. And he’ll be the first one to tell you that he’s had lots of help from his friends.

A man with a white beard, wearing a faded life jacket, looks into gentle sunlightRuss was born in 1947 and spent his first years outside of New York, NY, before his family moved to Louisville, KY, when he was 6. Russ dropped out of his senior year of college. He volunteered for the Army, served, and returned from Vietnam. Then he began a quest for a lifestyle that was in accordance with his principles. He met his wife, Renee Powell, in 1978 when she was getting her master’s degree in art therapy. In 1981 they moved to the Red River Gorge and began building a gorgeous, serene, abundant homestead on a remote piece of land, bordered by the gorgeous and free flowing Wild & Scenic Red River. They have been off the grid ever since. Russ would rather stay home than go to town. He spends his time providing necessities like wood for heat, food from their well-tended garden, and cooking meals. He makes a little money as he needs and chooses to volunteer as an environmental activist for causes where he believes he can make a difference. Russ moves through life at his unique pace. He is methodical and intentional, and the result is meaningful, artistic, focused, genuine: an inspiration.

Russ volunteered as Wolfe County’s Solid Waste Coordinator between 1999 – 2003 (give or take a year). During that time, he helped secure funding from various sources to start the Upper Red River Cleanup or Tire Round-up, as it used to be called, in 1996. It is no ordinary clean up. 

The 11 miles between the uppermost river access, Big Branch Canoe Launch, and the next launch, Copperas Creek Canoe Launch, is the Wild & Scenic section. There is no public access to the river on this stretch and 11 miles is too long for a one-day cleanup. Faced with this challenge, we lower boats off of a cliff-line on Russ and Renee’s property, between Twin Branch and Big Calaboose Creek, to shorten the overall distance by a few miles.

We meet at 8 am at Copperas Launch to shuttle to Russ’ property. We haul our kayaks, canoes, duckies, and an assortment of cleanup gear (shovels, pry bars, hand saws, trash bags, and more) to the cliff. We lower everything as carefully as possible over the cliff edge then haul it the rest of the way to the river. Next, we pump up three of the eight rubber duckies to tow and fill with garbage along the paddle. It is often very cold so we bundle up and then we are off!

a kayaker hauls a blue ducky boat full of tires down the riverRuss travels the river in the weeks in advance of the cleanup to note any new dangers. He also dislodges and piles tires to expedite the day-of cleanup. We follow-up on Russ’s efforts, picking up random plastic, metal, fabric, the tire piles, and more along the 6+ mile paddle. There are several small rapids along the route where we have to pull our boats through low ripples. Sometimes the duckies are attached to our boats and sometimes we have to send them through a rapid and pick them back up down river, hoping that the tires and trash don’t tip out before we regain control.

Then there is the ¼ mile portage around Dog Drowning Hole, home to class II/III rapids. There, we haul all our canoes, kayaks, and collected garbage up the bank, around the rapids, and carefully back down the hill. Back and forth, back and forth, two tires at a time (for as many as 50 tires!) if you are able. Back at the river we blow up some more duckies, re-pack the boats, then navigate the rest of the way, trying not to stop for “little garbage,” just so we can make it to the boat launch by dark… which we inevitably barely do.

a group of people poses in front of a full-to-bursting dumpsterThe last few years, we’ve added volunteers who paddle up-river from the Copperas Canoe Launch, filling duckies along the way, to help with complete the final section. More friends show up to help unload all garbage and clean and carry boats up the tricky steps. Daniel Boone National Forest supplies a dumpster that we always fill completely.

We all celebrate our accomplishments at Miguel’s Pizza afterward, eyes drooping with fatigue from our ridiculously tiring effort, but pleased with the good deeds we’ve done for our community, our Red River, and for those downstream. Russ’s truth is printed and cut out of an unknown/undated newspaper source: “There is a feeling that one gets at the end of a cleanup that transcends the pain and weariness. You look up river and know that you have played a part in some much larger plan, that for all that has been given to you, you have given back, and in the process you were given even more.”

During the initial cleanups of 1996-1999, 100+ tires were removed each year from the 6-mile stretch. Each year, volunteers show up from local Wolfe, Powell, and Breathitt Counties as well as United States Forest Service, Bluegrass Wildwater Association, Sierra Club, and other groups. During the early years of Russ’s public cleanup efforts, Eastern Kentucky PRIDE was created and awarded substantial funding (along with Kentucky River Authority) for the removal of several open and illegal dump sites in Wolfe County. Additionally, Russ helped secure funding and assistance for cleanup efforts from BWA, USFS, Rumpke, State Highway Garage, Division of Waste Management, Red River Outfitters, Appalachian Heritage Alliance, Kentucky Waterways Alliance, and many others including local businesses, stakeholders and citizens. In December 1999, Wolfe County News recognized “Mr. Russell ‘Russ’ Miller [as] the coordinator on this project (Big Bloody Creek 2 phase clean up) as well as all other cleanup projects in the county and has physically worked on all projects and should be recognized as one of the most concerned, hardest workers to help clean up Wolfe County’s rivers and streams.” 

Throughout the years, Russ addresses and represents Wolfe County citizens regarding environmental issues. In the Wolfe County News March 1998, Russ asks, “Which Side are you on? It is said that we inherit the sins of our fathers. Nowhere is this more evident than when we see trash along our roads and streams. What has been taken from us because of the neglect of others? What joys will we not receive? The beauty of a hillside free of trash, the wonder of clean water, the health of our community, the unblemished vision of the creator in nature? Can our children remember any of these things that we enjoyed as children? How do we reach the members of our community that continue to trash our county? How do we stimulate an awareness of a shared vision of an environment in which we can take pride? How do we come together to eliminate this sin of trash? How do we move into a new vision? Where do we begin? There are those in our county that believe only a few are concerned with its condition and until they can see the county working to change, they will continue their old patterns. Either you want change (in our roadsides and streams) or you don’t. There is no middle ground. Change requires action – Which side are you on?”

Through the efforts Russ leads, tires finally started to decrease on the 6-mile section of Red River as ‘historic’ tires removed were not replaced. Russ’s “Tire Round-up” was making a huge difference on the Red River and in the community. After the 23rd Annual Upper Red Cleanup in 2019, Russ wrote an article for Swift Creek Courier in Wolfe County. He ends with: “Red River is our river. It represents us. It says who we are and that statement can either say we are a proud people or it can say we are irresponsible. I’ve always said that America’s greatest freedom is the freedom to be irresponsible. Freedom requires discipline and keeping our County clean is the best way I know to demonstrate that we are a proud and responsible people.”

Since 2008, I have hiked and climbed many nooks and crannies of the Red River Gorge. I met Russ (and many other close friends) at a community volleyball game at Campton Elementary in February 2009 around the time my sweetheart, Casey, and I moved to Kentucky. In 2013 we started helping the Upper Red Cleanup. That year, Casey shuttled a boat trailer to Copperas Canoe Launch. At that time, I had never participated in a river cleanup and I admit, I didn’t remotely understand the complexity of it or the bravery and generosity of our friends for tackling this mission year after year. If I had I would have insisted that they take me with them much sooner. The first time I ever paddled on Wild & Scenic Red River was May 2017 with Russ and a handful of other friends. I was invited back to join the effort in 2018 as Russ’s canoe-mate. Not for the faint of heart, the Upper Red cleanup is a ridiculous slog that fosters camaraderie, improved water quality, and is a surprisingly joyful way to experience our Wild & Scenic Red River.

Russ continues to advocate for the environment and inspire others to do the same. Lexington Herald’s Kentucky voices op-ed section published Russ’s view on “Health and the fate of the planet hinging on our actions, big and small.” Russ states, “We have the responsibility to consider the consequences of our actions… futility is the excuse of the unimaginative and the unwilling. Hope requires progress to sustain it, and progress requires effort. As Earth Day approaches, we have the opportunity to take stock of our commitment to the environment and to act on our concerns. We can’t save the planet in one day, one week or one year, but we can plant the seeds of change that might bring balance back to our relationship with our environment.”

The 26th Annual Upper Red Cleanup will be on May 7, 2022. We are lucky to have this calm, caring, generous, courageous leader – the River Cowboy, Russ Miller.

a man, Russ Miller, paddles a red canoe with a white dog and trashbags in the back

All photos in this post published with permission from Laura Gregory.

Curious how you can get involved in protecting the rivers near your home? Check out Adventure Scientists’ Wild and Scenic Rivers project. Hikers, kayakers, and paddlers of all sorts are collecting water quality data on select waterways across America’s Wild & Scenic Rivers network. For other rivers, look for opportunities with groups like the Kentucky Waterways Alliance. Give back to the rivers you love and the ecosystems they support! -Adventure Scientists