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HomeLand & Water​Root River Cleanup has become an annual tradition

Root River Cleanup has become an annual tradition

By John Weiss, September 26, 2023

Reid Wintersteen, accompanied by his nine-month old son Clayton, helps with river cleanup on the Root River near Lanesboro. His wife Laura picks up trash nearby. (Photo by John Weiss)

Root River Cleanup has become an annual tradition


LANESBORO — Reid and Laura Wintersteen are starting their son, Clayton, out right.

On September 17, Reid brought him along in a backpack as mom and dad walked through a Root River canoe landing on Minnesota Highway 16 downriver of Lanesboro and waded through the river to pick up trash.

Okay, Clayton might not recall this time because he’s nine months old, but the idea is sound – teach them early, teach them often to help.

In this case, it was the annual Root River Clean-up sponsored by Root River Rod Co. The downtown Lanesboro business has been doing it ever since founder and head rod-maker Steve Sobieniak started it several years ago. Steve died a year ago of cancer but the cleanup continues, now dedicated in his memory.

Lance Prado, Sobieniak’s son-in-law and store manager, said “we use this river as part of our store, we want to keep it as nice as we can and give back to it.” The river gets especially trashed after holidays, he said. They find the usual crud – cans, bottles, plastic, empty worm containers. Customers sometimes comment on the trash, he said. They don’t believe trash ruins the river but “its kind of eye sore,” he said.

Around 8:45 a.m., people began showing up outside the store, many wearing waders or knee boots. A trio decided to drift down the river, fishing smallmouth bass while they also tried to land a limit of trash. Some headed for the area below the Root River dam; others into the area around the Coffee Street bridge; the Wintersteens went to the 16 landing.

The two had been living out west but wanted to come home, which they did a few years ago. “We grew up in the area and just wanted to be close to family,” said Reid, a civil engineer who works from home. “It’s a great town to live in.” It also has great access to the river and they decided to show up at the shop to help it. “Just wanted to serve the community, help out,” he said.

At the landing, they peered into bushes and shrubs along the edge and found little trash. 

Laura Wintersteen, a teacher at Lanesboro schools, adds an old plastic bucket to her bag of trash found along the Root River. (Photo by John Weiss)

Then they began walking along the Root’s bank and in its shallow edge, finding more junk like old cans, bottles and a T-shirt. All went into their orange trash bags.

Laura, who coaches seventh- and eighth-grade volleyball at Lanesboro Public Schools said she was “kind of surprised to see how little there was there.” 

“Any time you can be outside, it feels good,” she said. But doing something for the community makes it “extra special.”

But they kept on, Clayton watching from his backpack, seeming to enjoy the ride. But then, his mom did find an old plastic bucket in the weeds.

At that, the two went upstream, finding even more. Soon, they had their bags maybe a third full and went back to the store to drop them off.

Giving back to the river

As they searched for more trash, Sally Noll of St. Paul came up with another bag ready to help. She’s chair of Fly Fishing Women of Minnesota and comes down to the Lanesboro area to fish.

Like the Wintersteens, Noll just wanted to help, give back. She found beer cans, diapers and water bottles. “It felt like a good thing to do,” she said. Maybe if it’s clean, others will think twice about tossing trash, she said. Besides, “it’s just a beautiful day.”


Accumulated trash outside Lanesboro’s Root River Rod Co.,  sponsor of the river cleanup. (Photo by John Weiss)


Back at the shop, the pile of bags and debris grew. Most were the routine stuff, beer cans, bottles and two surprises, a child’s plastic tricycle and a car battery. Those were the finds of the day. And more people were still out, he said.

Prado thinks his father-in-law would have been proud and they will do it again next year.

Alayna Sobieniak’s daughter and Prado’s wife, said her dad talked about that cleanup weeks before he died. “We’re going to do it every year” in his memory, she said.

Another way they are thinking of commemorating her dad is another project he was interested in – building a kiosk at the parking lot at the base of the popular dam to give information about proper use of the river and offer a place where people can post information about the town and the river, she said.

Over the years, the Root River Rod cleanup hasn’t been alone. Eagle Cliff Campground several miles downriver has done it for many years, said Melanie Ritter, who bought it with her husband Dan Ritter 10 years ago. It was done before that, with the campground offering people canoes to drift down to gather trash.

“We typically have certain couples that come every year and we sometimes have a few Boy Scout troops that help us clean up,” she said. They get lunch and a T-shirt.

Not this year.

The drought knocked it out because the river has been too low to safely get canoes or kayaks over the rocks. 

They would have left from the campground or started farther up and drifted down, Melanie Ritter said. 

People do comment when they see trash, she said. She especially detests Styrofoam because it doesn’t break down.

They do it because “it’s important for the environment,” she said. They also adopt a highway and pick up trash there. 



John Weiss was a full-time reporter for the Rochester Post-Bulletin for 41 years and wrote the Back Roads column for more than 10 years. His passions include hunting, fishing, birding, nature photography, hiking and just kicking around.

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