It was nearing midnight on Jeff Barrow’s 48th birthday, and he was bobbing in the river where the Missouri meets the Mississippi — naked except for a life vest.
As was his custom, he looked around and saw magic in the setting. He said it was like swimming through galaxies.
“Everything’s black,” he said. “Stars above you and lights below you.”
It was 2004, and Barrow was preparing for a river cleanup — a prelude to the 45 or more he would supervise as executive director of Missouri River Relief.
He spent nine years in that position, and under his leadership, the nonprofit snagged, sorted and scrapped at least 430 tons of trash along more than 730 miles of river.
But Barrow, who retired Aug. 1, leaves a legacy that extends far beyond the reduction of litter.
He’s coordinated hundreds of cleanup teams and thousands of volunteers, and he has fostered a subculture of people from Sioux City to St. Louis who care for the river, and each other.
“A lot of people say (Missouri River Relief) is a real living community, which is something beyond what our mission is,” said Steve Schnarr, who took the helm from Barrow as executive director this month.
“It’s something unique, and I think Jeff has helped make that a goal. It’s what keeps a lot of people coming back.”
Barrow, 62, is all hand gestures and clove cigarettes, monocular dangling like a totem from his neck and a delta of laugh lines around blue eyes. He wears a Scottie dog mustache and, in the office or on the river, khaki Keens on his feet.
He is, above all, a host — soft-spoken, quick to welcome, to include. Strangers come to him and leave, after moments or years, as family.
Boy meets water
It was the connection to water that drew Barrow to the river in the first place.
He Huck Finn’d his way through childhood, scampering along rivers, scrabbling across islands to bury treasure, snagging library books about pirates and whaling.
The son of a Navy man, his family moved more than 10 times before Barrow graduated from high school in 1974. He was the perennial new kid. “I’m still working on my shyness,” he said.
Barrow moved easily between the muddied romp of boyhood and Navy brat aristocracy. He spent two summers in sailing school at an exclusive yacht club. Once, during the school year, his parents flew him to Hawaii to ride an aircraft carrier back to San Francisco, his father in command.
It was during these chronic moves that nature became Barrow’s one constant and the source of his own earth-centered spirituality.
Not long after the aircraft carrier voyage, his family moved again. While driving from one coast to the other, they paused at a Native American museum near the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming. A rising senior in high school, Barrow grabbed “Black Elk Speaks,” the biography of a Lakota medicine man by John Neihardt, once the poet-in-residence at MU.
Barrow decided he, too, believed a life force connected everything.
He considered himself a “Lakota surfer,” part amphibian, part aboriginal (though he’s really English, Welsh and Irish). The nickname he’d receive about 30 years later, “Man Who Swims With Boots On,” christened that identity.
Trying to figure out his next season after college, he summited a local mountain and stayed up all night praying to the “great spirit” — what he calls a vision quest. He’d later wear green wings and a Mardi gras mask for three Burning Man gatherings — where he’d “sweat his prayers” through meditation-based dancing.
Schnarr, said these creative communities “scratch a certain itch in (Barrow’s) personality, a desire for exuberant expression.”
Love and loss
The desire to forgo tradition steered him away from becoming a Navy man. He studied human biology — “science for English majors” — at Stanford, a prerequisite for a study-abroad program with Jane Goodall in Tanzania.
The year before he was to depart, three Stanford students were kidnapped by local rebels. Although they made it home safely, the program was cancelled.
Barrow, with the equivalent of a shrug, joined Stanford’s cohort of athletic trainers instead, after years of competing in football, wrestling and track.
He graduated in the late ‘70s, then stayed in northern California, juggling two jobs: the athletic training gig and work on a farm-wilderness preserve.
“It was this really cool lifestyle,” he said. “In the morning, we would (wrangle) cows and trim their hooves, and then in the afternoon I’d tape football players’ ankles.”
In 1986, he moved from California to Missouri to be closer to his family’s farm and landed a newspaper job with The Fulton Sun. Kate Yancey was a journalist, too, and he was instantly smitten.
It took him a year to work up any sort of courage — he thought she was too good for him — and when she invited him to a birthday party one day, he said yes.
He left his hat at her place, an excuse to call back later. When he did, they talked into the night. Not long after, in 1988, they married.
“It was like crazy, insane love. Movie love,” Kristen Schulte, education director at Missouri River Relief, said.
It was Kate who anchored Barrow to Missouri, to his first 9-to-5 job. But six months into their marriage, she started having headaches and vision problems. One day, she couldn’t pick up her toothbrush.
The doctors told them it was brain cancer. Stage 4, with water buildup in her brain. Until then, water had served many purposes for Barrow. It was, in its own season, a marvel, a solace, but now, a sorrow.
In their last conversation, his young bride, loopy from medicine and cancer, told him she looked fat. He told her no, no, it’s just water weight, before she drifted back to sleep.
He took his mom and sisters to grab a quick dinner, and by the time they returned, she was gone.
Cake and campaigns
There were little gifts in her death. How, in the restaurant with his family, Barrow had glanced at the clock and saw a beam of sunlight shining on “5:15.” When he returned to the hospital and found her dead, the nurse said she’d passed at 5:15.
How, amid the surgery and the chemo and the bone marrow transplant, she never once threw up.
How he’d heard that the soul lingers for at least three hours in the body, so after she died and his family left them alone, he stayed with her, saw her off.
At 33, he was a widower, and didn’t know what to do. Sometimes it felt like the grief would overwhelm him: “This is as lonely as it gets,” he thought.
“He said he never got to know the things he didn’t like about her,” Schulte said. “It’s why he calls himself a forever bachelor, because he really only loved this one person.”
Barrow threw himself into work, six days a week, and on Sundays he’d go to the movies or bookstores. Somehow he ended up at Green Party meetings, drawn to the group’s four pillars: grassroots democracy, social justice, nonviolence and ecological wisdom.
One year, they iced “Barrow for Congress” onto his birthday cake. Spurred by the idea, he ran twice on a Green Party platform of smart growth and stormwater issues. He lost both times but took defeat in stride.
“I did the campaign thing, and I thought, the only way I’m going to win this election is if someone gets killed,” Barrow said.
He ended up spending 15 years on Columbia’s Planning and Zoning Commission, the champion of stormwater ordinances, and the self-described “anti-cul-de-sac guy.”
One of his proudest accomplishments was passing an ordinance for riparian corridors along streams. A riparian corridor is the margin of soil, vegetation and fauna that lines a river, earth pressing up against water. The corridors protect against erosion, keep rivers clean and create diverse ecosystems.
Pioneer on the river
Barrow has always been a caretaker, both professionally and personally.
“He’s like a mother, and you don’t see that much in men, the way he looks out for people,” Schulte said.
Several years ago, he helped a single mother adopt and raise her baby girl so she didn’t have to do it alone.
“They weren’t a couple, but he’s been the father figure for this young lady who’s now a teenager,” said John Brady, fleet manager of Missouri River Relief. “He’s just that kind of guy.”
As director of Missouri River Relief, Barrow was instrumental in making it more inclusive. He helped pioneer experiential learning on the river, inviting thousands of students and teachers for education days and weeklong river academies. He made a point, too, to empower women, Brady said.
“Anyone who wanted to train to be a boat operator could do it. We have fine boat operators who are female,” Brady said. “They’ve never been in a boat in their lives. He was a champion of that. He doesn’t have a lot of macho in him.”
His protection of people mirrors his protection of the river, a cause he’d advocate for years to come. Following the cleanup model of Mississippi River hero Chad Pregracke, with whom Barrow would later write a book, Barrow and a sundry tribe of naturalists planned Missouri River Relief’s inaugural cleanup.
It was 2001, two weeks after 9/11, and nearly 600 people showed up.
“The nation was injured. People wanted to do something to help,” Brady said. “We got an amazing amount of trash off the river, and we decided, this is what we want to do. (But) we realized early on that we’d never clean up all the trash.”
They sat around, thinking, “What is our product? Our mission?” Then, it hit them: reconnecting people to the river.
“Our ancestors mostly came (to Missouri) by river. It was a highway into the West,” Brady said. “We lost that connection. Rivers became a place we dumped things we didn’t want.”
‘No definition for odd’
In the years since, a river cleanup community has been developed, shaped and nurtured by Barrow. One of his most sacred cleanup rituals is based on the Native American talking stick tradition, Schnarr said.
Volunteers sit around a campfire after a long day picking up trash, and one by one they pass around an object, be it a feather or horn or whatever is available, and share a highlight of their day. Whoever has the object has the floor.
When Barrow gets the feather, he always says the greatest part of his day is hearing about the greatest part of theirs.
“It’s part of his value system to bring people into the center of everything,” Schnarr said.
During the day, someone gets the award for finding the most unusual piece of trash, maybe a toilet seat or an 18-inch “dashboard Jesus” figurine, said Steve Sadich, Barrow’s friend and cleanup volunteer. Then, before camping on an island, the volunteers will turn their life vests upside down and just float.
“One of the things I love about River Relief is there’s no definition for odd because we’re always redefining it,” Schulte said.
At the helm of those oddities, for nine years, was Barrow.
“It’s a special person who goes and picks up people’s trash,” Sadich said.
Now that he’s retired, Barrow plans to help fix up his family’s property, canoe in next year’s whitewater boating competition, write another book.
His commitment to people, to nature, and to connecting them, remains. He has a way of making every space a riparian corridor — a place of life and healing that exists, for everyone, along the river.