With gloves and old clothes, I arrived with others around 8 a.m. at Larimer Park in Russell, Pa. We fueled ourselves with doughnuts and coffee and met our teammates and prepared our gear. Despite the rain, we headed out to several starting points along the Conewango Creek, climbed into our canoes and paddled downstream to start the search.
Birds called, fish jumped and turtles warming themselves in the morning sun splashed back into the water. The creatures were noticed but overlooked in search of a higher priority. And then we spotted the shiny blue among some sticks and headed directly towards it. A beer can among floating sticks. There was a plastic soda bottle filled with what I hope was Mountain Dew.
"Is that a tire or a log?" my canoeing partner asked.
This is how my first Conewango Creek River Cleanup started last year. I was pleased to take part, along with 32 other volunteers. For me, seeing trash along the trail or shore is like hearing a conversation peppered with vulgarities. It's offensive and doesn't belong in the beauty of the nature world.
I love to kayak. While kayaking, the repetitive paddling sets the rhythm, and the surrounding environment creates the melody: water running, birds singing, the wind blowing gently through the trees. It almost becomes a meditative state. But then, like a scratch on a record, my rhythm is broken, my peace arrested at the sight of a tire, a beer can or a piece of Styrofoam in the water.
Not only is trash along our waterways and trails just plain ugly, it is also a hazard to the health of the land and the animals that live there, including us. Animals can ingest debris that causes them to feel full when they're not or leach chemicals into their bodies as the litter breaks down. Fishing line can entangle animals that then have trouble finding food, escaping from predators or breathing. Litter can also affect the water quality by adding chemicals to the water. If a paint can is thrown into the water, where do you think the leftover paint goes? And when I wear shoes in the creek, it is not just the rocks that I'm concerned about but the glass, metal and other sharp objects that may be there.
Even for those who don't live near the water, they can still affect it with litter. In many towns and cities, storm drains flow directly to streams and rivers. That means litter on sidewalks and streets and in gutters is swept into the storm drain system when it rains. I think EPA officials said it best in describing the impacts littering in the city has on the coast. "When it rains, you don't go to the beach, your litter does."
The good thing is there are multiple opportunities to make a difference this fall. River and land clean-ups are simple opportunities to make a visible impact. While I'm sure seasoned "trash pickers" have perfected their techniques, there is very little you have to know to pick up trash. You just have to have a willingness to get a little dirty.
If you have a sense of discovery and humor it feels less like work and more like a treasure hunt. It is amazing sometimes what you find. I recall finding dozens of beer cans, plastic soda and water bottles, plastic bags, tires and Styrofoam. I also found a usable basketball, a most likely unusable TV and a very nice rug. On the Allegheny River Clean-up last year, a volunteer found a motorcycle.
Some clean-up volunteers are very resourceful. Pallets pulled from the Allegheny River have been repurposed into a chicken coop. I've pulled multiple bobbers and various fishing lures out of waterways during my many kayak adventures only to reuse them later.
After a clean-up there is a sense of accomplishment in what you've done mixed with disgust at what we as a society have done both intentionally and unintentionally. Last year during the Conewango Creek Clean-up, volunteers picked up 5,000 pounds of trash, one ton of recyclable metal, 17 tires, a refrigerator, a car door, three rugs, half a canoe, a wheelchair and three bicycles.
Almost everything we do as humans creates some kind of waste. Finding a long-term solution to our trash problem is more multifaceted than a once a year clean-up. Solutions also include the prevention of litter, reusing and recycling items and the reduction of waste in the first place. But clean-ups are an effective way to make a sizable impact. A day of cleaning up trash can create a lifetime of awareness of what we throw away.
If you want to get involved, there are multiple opportunities coming up in our area that you can participate in. There are links to all the events at jasprograms.wordpress.com.
Chadakoin River Cleanup, Saturday, Sept. 8, Jamestown.
27th annual Great Lakes Beach Sweep, Saturday, Sept. 15, Woodland State Park, Westfield.
Conewango Creek Cleanup, Saturday, Sept. 15, at Larimer Park, Russell, Pa.
Allegheny River Cleanup, Sept.15-22 at various locations along the river.
Audubon's Roadside Cleanup, Saturday, Oct. 6, at Audubon.
We only have one Conewango Creek with Kingfishers swooping by and otters eating mussels on the shore. We only have one Allegheny River with Bald Eagles flying overhead and trout swimming below. So, why not make it look the best we can. Arm yourself with gloves, old clothes and a sense of humor, then pick your weekend to come out and clean.
Audubon is located at 1600 Riverside Road, just off Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails and Liberty viewing area are open from dawn until dusk. The center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. Visit jamestownaudubon.org for more information or call 569-2345.
Katie Finch is a naturalist at Audubon.