Sunday, September 11, 2011

Collecting litter with Tyler

Last weekend, 65 volunteers in 30 canoes met to collect litter from the south fork of the Nooksack River, near Acme, Washington. After the organizers gave us a pep talk that included safety instructions, interesting facts about salmon, and the problems caused by plastic and trash in the water, off we went. My job was to be the sweeper, and stay at the end, to make sure everyone was accounted for at the end of the journey – about 12 miles downstream, where we would have a celebratory BBQ and prizes.

Soon everyone departed, except me and my canoe partner Leslie, whom I’d just met. We set off, and immediately swamped our canoe in the first set of rapids, which was barely out of sight of the launch area. Luckily, the second-to-last canoeists had swamped in the same spot, and had just recovered their canoe from the rapids. For a few minutes, Leslie and I were thigh-deep in the water, trying to drag out our canoe out of the water. We couldn’t budge it, because it was totally full of water, and the current was hitting it head on. Luckily, the two men who’d just recovered their canoe from the same spot jumped in to help. Since our stuff was tightly tied in with rope, we didn’t lose anything. After regaining our composure, and talking about how to avoid swamping in the next rapids, we set off again.

Around the corner, we saw three people in a green canoe, who were paddling with long oars, complete with oarlocks! The person in the bow was standing up, pointing at a logjam. A second later he dove out of the canoe, and swam to the jam. Then he heaved himself onto the logs, and started crawling all over it. He found three full cans of beer, a collection of bottles, a punctured raft, some plastic bags, and a hat, which he put on. We stopped and watched, as the energy and enthusiasm of the guy climbing around (Tyler) was remarkable. While Tyler cleaned all the trash off the logjam, we looked for litter on the beach, and then followed his canoe downstream. In between the jams, Tyler used a net to collect beer cans and other items off the river bottom.

All of a sudden, we heard yelling and splashing. The two men who’d helped us earlier had swamped again, just ahead. By the time we got there, they had rescued themselves. Instead of risking another swamping, Leslie and I jumped out of our canoe, and used a long rope to line our canoe down the rapids. Next thing we noticed were three folks along the riverbank, staring at something small. We went over to see – it was the smallest toad I’d ever seen – about the size of a pencil eraser. We were so intent on looking at the tiny toad that we didn’t notice that the toad discoverer’s canoe, appropriately named named “Good Buy” had started to float away. We swam downstream to retrieve it.

I started to get hungry, but Tyler and his threesome were going strong, and cleaning up another logjam, so I went swimming. Eventually, they came along, with Tyler standing up in the bow with his oar, looking like a combination of a pirate and a canoe coxswain. He was excitedly pointing toward the next logjam. Minutes later, he was climbing around yet more logs, where he found more full beers, another raft, a shirt, more plastic bags, water bottles, a punctured inner tube, and a plastic table. We helped him gather this stuff, which was tricky, because the water was about waist deep at this spot, and the water was moving fast. Our canoes were getting full of trash, but luckily, the halfway point was coming up, where we’d be able to unload our booty near a road, where it would be picked up, and taken to the landfill.

We lined down another rapid, and portaged around a logjam. Leslie and I were getting into our groove. We watched Tyler climb over more logs, finding even more stuff. We were hungry, and we wanted to go to the BBQ. We’d politely asked our little group of slowpokes to speed up, but they seemed to be slowing down. I was a little worried that we’d be benighted on the river, but it would be a nice night, with an almost full moon. So instead of nagging, I went for another swim, and climbed onto a logjam with Tyler. Almost immediately, I found four full cans of beer, a full bottle of Trader Joe’s sparking water with lemon flavoring, three plastic bags, and a ball cap. After I put this stuff in my canoe, I went for a swim in a deep pool below the jam. I opened my eyes under water, and noticed something red and gold sparking among in the rocks on the bottom. I dove down again, and came up with an almost full bottle of fireball cinnamon whisky. Refreshed from the swim and excited about my finds, I stopped worrying about time.

I’ve been to about 20 beach litter collection events over the years. Each time, some kind of magic happens. It’s a combination of enthusiasm and the mystery of a treasure hunt, and I can always count on feeling rewarded - whether it’s from watching children hauling huge chunks of styrofoam down a beach, people diving into clear blue pools to retrieve plastic bags, teams of people pulling out fishing nets embedded in deep sand, or just plain exhausted satisfaction after a day of a lot of exercise in a beautiful place. Want to give it a try? Come join us on September 24, at Locust Beach, Bellingham. Questions? I can be reached at

You might have way more fun than you expect.

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