Environment Picture

Bob Andrus: Tireless champion for Michigan’s cold water trout streams

When MEC President Chris Kolb called Bob Andrus to tell him he’d won MEC’s Petoskey Prize, Andrus took the call standing waist-deep in the Holy Waters section of the frigid Au Sable River.

That figures.

For Andrus and the hundreds of other volunteers who carefully steward, repair and maintain Northern Michigan’s nationally renowned trout waters, the river is a virtual second home and a labor of love.

Andrus is quick to point out that he’s just one of many who keep this unique endeavor rolling. Any one of the others are deserving of the award, insists the soft-spoken retiree.

But it was Andrus’ own buddies who pulled together an exhaustive nomination detailing Andrus’ longtime leadership role and his “Boots in the River” volunteer coordination.

So, it is Andrus who earns the Michigan Environmental Council’s Petoskey Prize for Grassroots Leadership in 2013. The prize is bestowed annually on an individual whose commitment, creativity and courage have inspired others to safeguard Michigan’s air, land and water for future generations. Winners receive $5,000 for the Michigan environmental organization(s) of their choice.

Andrus was nominated by MEC member group Au Sable River Watershed Committee with support from groups including Michigan Trout Unlimited, Huron Pines, and the Au Sable River Property Owners’ Association.

The compilation of Andrus’ volunteer efforts is nearly as thick as the Grayling phone book: beaver dam removals, stream temperature monitoring, construction of trout spawning riffles, cedar plantings on riverbanks, insect surveys, invasive species removals, past chair of Michigan Trout Unlimited, a founder of the Au Sable River Watershed Restoration Committee, and more.

Slightly built, wiry, and with a shock of white hair perpetually hidden underneath a ballcap, Andrus moves deliberately and purposefully as he arranges logs, saws timbers, shuttles vehicles and stalks the river, directing volunteers.

At 68 years of age, he’s as active as a man 20 years his junior. A couple years ago, he went on a three-week hike along the Continental Divide. By “hike,” he means remote backcountry backpacking: sleeping in tents and carrying every pound of essential gear on his back.

He credits the river for keeping him young. And he returns the favor in spades.

Historical challenges
It is almost certain that the Au Sable and Manistee rivers would not be the renowned trout streams they remain today without the efforts of volunteers who remove logjams, restore habitat, plant cedars to shade the cool water, and monitor biological indicators like insect hatches.

Some of the challenges they wrestle with are historical screw-ups that we are still paying for. Sand—a “biological desert” says Andrus—is still washing into the streams from hastily constructed road crossings built during the past century. Residual sand from the I-75 highway construction in the early 1960s still trickles through the Au Sable’s tributaries. Depressions in the riverbed called sand traps are maintained, and the sand periodically removed.

The challenges change with the times. Unchecked waste from 1970s sewage plants choked the river with nutrients, fueling weed growth that sucked life-giving oxygen from the water. Modern environmental rules for discharges helped return the rivers to health.

Credit to Milliken
Back then, government had a strong conservation role in proactively managing Michigan’s trout waters. Andrus credits former Gov. William Milliken with setting up watershed advisory councils throughout Michigan to address pollution and habitat loss throughout the state in the 1970s. When the councils disbanded, much of their work fell in the laps of volunteer groups, who continue to carry the torch today.

“Twenty, 30 years ago a lot of this stuff was done by government agencies,” said Andrus. “Now it’s being done by the public.”

On one spring day this year, a convoy of six pickup trucks rambled away from the Wakeley Bridge Canoe Landing as Andrus pulled in. Jim Anderson, volunteer and retired Michigan National Guard Brigadier General shouted, “We’re going to get that other tree and tie it to your boat trailer.”

Andrus nodded. They talked logistics. Andrus was driving Anderson’s truck. They needed to retrieve Andrus’ truck from Anderson’s house, and the boat trailer from Andrus’ place. Then tie the tree to the trailer and move it to one of the habitat projects. The tree might end up lashed to other logs and strategically positioned in the river to create habitat.

Oh, and Anderson left Andrus with no gas in the truck. “I noticed that,” deadpanned Andrus. “Thanks a lot.”

Getting the bug
Andrus grew up in a farming family outside of Saginaw. He went to Michigan State University and did a tour of duty with an infantry aviation unit during the Vietnam War before returning to college to earn a teaching certificate.

But it was the summer between high school and college where he found his ‘eureka moment.’ Working as a canoe guide at a Boy Scout camp, he was introduced to the Manistee River and its storied trout population. “I sat there and watched the trout rising on the river and I thought to myself ‘wow.’ It didn’t take long to get the bug.”

Seduced by the river, Andrus moved to Grayling and began a public school teaching career in Grayling. He raised three children to adulthood—Ian, 35, who lives in Grayling; Kelsey, 26, of Evart, MI; and Austin, 25, of Denver. He also mentored hundreds of other young Grayling students—many who now volunteer on the river.

He’s lived for 25 years in a log cabin-style home tucked in the woods east of Grayling, steps from his beloved river. A wooden walkway leads down to the Holy Waters section of the Au Sable where Andrus can sit on the dock and watch anglers and canoeists drift by on the current.

He estimates he spends 1,000 volunteer hours a year working on river projects. In any given year, others may equal or exceed that commitment. But no one’s done it so consistently, year-in and year-out, for the decades Andrus has.

“Watershed groups, advocates and leaders come and go as quickly as the snow on an early spring day,” wrote Samuel Prentice with the conservation group Huron Pines in a nominating letter. “However Bob Andrus has fished, experienced and protected this watershed for more than a quarter of a century. Understanding that watershed protection is…certainly worth fighting for to keep this premier cold water system a top fishery in the nation is why Bob Andrus is the epitome of grassroots leadership.”
-Hugh McDiarmid
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