It all started with a creek.

A little over a decade ago, the employees of the Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co. in Chippewa Falls, Wis., set a goal for themselves. They wanted to clean up the trash and debris in Duncan Creek, which has run through the brewery's grounds since it was founded back in 1867. They tapped volunteers, local businesses and other organizations and proved that a community could work together to keep a stream clean.

With that accomplishment under their belt, they turned to nearby Lake Wissota. Again, they found themselves making a difference.

Three years ago the Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co. (of the MillerCoors family, which is an MNN sponsor) took their success on the road. They started holding regular events called Canoes for a Cause, teaming up with local organizations to help clean up rivers in Milwaukee, Chicago and other Midwest cities. The events quickly grew. This year the event in Minneapolis attracted more than 2,000 volunteers.

"It's really about awareness," says company President Jake Leinenkugel. "We want to create awareness of why water stewardship and the quality of groundwater and recreational water are so important, not just for our company but for everyone."

This year also saw Canoes for a Cause expand beyond the Midwest to a number of markets where the brewer does business. The events exceeded their expectations, Leinenkugel says. "Our goal this year was to double the number of water stewardship activities under Canoes for a Cause. We did more than that." This summer they organized a dozen events, quadruple the number from last year, hitting cities such as Boston, Raleigh, Indianapolis and Portland. The events in each city include a long canoe ride down local rivers as well as cleanup activities alongside their banks. The event this year in Chicago collected more than 1,000 pounds of trash from the Chicago River.

"Think about it," Leinenkugel says. "You're doing half a ton in just a few hours at a couple of primary locations. To see what you're pulling out and how abusive some of us are to our waterways, it's sad."

Volunteers pulled an almost endless variety of materials from the rivers. "You're going to find just about everything," Leinenkugel says. They found a lot of shopping carts, clothes, dolls, an empty safe, and, everywhere they looked, empty food wrappers. "People are eating down there and just leaving their trash," he says.

Leinenkugel credits the hard work of the local organizations that tend to these rivers all year long for helping to make Canoes for a Cause a success this year. "It's a partnership," he says. "It's a great way for us to partner with groups that live in the area every day and already have a force set up to do something about the waterways."

Leinenkugel says he sees Canoes for a Cause growing every year and expects it to continue doing so. "There's a lot of momentum, which is really exciting. I can see this 10 years from now being a national drive led by groups that recognize how necessary it is to educate people about clean ground water and clean recreational water."

As they wrap up their public events for this year, Leinenkugel looks forward to making a difference not just for today but the future. "The next generation might not be as lucky as us unless we start to do things and turn it around. This is just the right thing to do."

Related stories on MNN:

Canoes for a Cause: A brewer inspires volunteers to help clean America's waterways
The Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co.'s annual event expanded to a dozen U.S. cities this summer.