“The lasting pleasures of contact with the natural world are not reserved for scientists but are available to anyone who will place himself under the influence of earth, sea and sky and their amazing life.” ~ Rachel Carson (1907 – 1964)

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Ohio River cleanup via kayak with PWP

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My husband and I are usually working on the less-than-visible problems that affect our waterways, but earlier this month we had the opportunity to scour the Ohio River for the more obvious pollution cluttering the shorelines. We attended the Neville Island Clean Up, one of several on-the-water clean up events organized by Paddle Without Pollution (PWP). After hearing such wonderful comments about the organization, we chose to spend our highly coveted date time with them on a Saturday morning.

Preparing to participate was surprisingly simple. With the appropriate clothing and shoes, a bottle of water, and a signed form, we were ready to go.  After a few U turns, we found the meet up location, a public boat launch across the river from lower Neville Island.  Greeted by the PWP staff, we joined a dedicated, diverse group of regulars and newbies. Some folks brought their own kayaks, PFDs, and paddles, but we borrowed all of the required gear from PWP.

We launched as teams in kayaks and canoes prepped with gloves, bungies and bags.  Over the next few hours, the teams cleaned stretches of shoreline by gathering all debris possible. We paddled up to a section, came ashore, worked the area until most of the visual debris was removed, then moved on downstream. The smaller pieces were gathered into bags. The larger items were transferred to a dedicated canoe or bungied onto our kayaks. Once all the vessels reached capacity, we geared up for the seemingly longer trip back to the dock.  In addition to just feeling good as we glanced around at all the overflowing kayaks and canoes, we were thanked by several folks on their docks as we passed by.

What did we find?

In just a few hours, the crew gathered nearly one ton of debris — 1,998 lbs!

Most abundant: Small pieces of foam and plastic bottles of all shapes and sizes.  I was cursing foam under my breath quite a bit by the end of the trip — pieces of foam floats, foam coolers, foam cushions, foam cups, foam take out containers, foam anything, grrrr. Not only are these tiny littles pieces all over, they are also very annoying to gather.  The plastic bottles were much easier to remove but their sheer abundance was disheartening.  Their contents, often containing a miscellaneous body fluid, were also a bit disheartening!  Lesson learned: Just leave the contents be. We were also told that it is common to find syringes, but PWP strongly recommends that only their staff handle these and other similar items.

Most likely to have a sad person upstream: Balls and single shoes. In just a few hours, Carl and I alone must have found approximately 30 balls — big balls, small bags, baseballs, plastic balls, kick balls — and maybe 10 shoes, mostly flips flops, but a few sandals, and often children’s sizes. These prompted thoughts that maybe the balls could be cleaned, pumped up, and donated for a second chance on a playground.

We also found several pieces of broken glass, of course. I saved this special little item for last. After a childhood spent playing outdoors and several years of field work for school and research, often in risky situations like climbing steep mountains and sampling lakes… at night, I have (just barely) managed to stay cut and broken bone free… until now. And, no, it wasn’t during the hours of getting in and out of a kayak, scrambling up and down roots and rocks, or navigating shoreline vegetation that I lost my status. I was simply carrying a bag to the big garbage pile when I felt a pinch as the bag bumped on my shin. “Interesting,” I thought, until I felt it again. Apparently, when you are cut by glass, it feels like a pinch. Now I know. PWP’s staff was quick to clean out the cut and bandage me up (Thank you, Dave!). Another lesson learned: Don’t let garbage bags that may contain broken glass bounce on your leg.

After some much deserved pizza provided by PWP for the now very hungry crew of volunteers, Carl and I headed off to squeeze in a couple more hours of quality time at Med Express.  Here I gathered four stitches, a tetanus shot (that I needed anyway), and a precautionary script of antibiotics before we were on our way.  (I still have my ‘no broken bone’ medal.)

It was quite fitting that in those two hours I was left to reflect on (and Google myself into an ephemeral freak out about) the various invisible, and potentially harmful, microorganisms inhabiting our lakes and rivers, some of which are present due to upstream human activity and/or crumbling infrastructure. All aquatic ecosystems (rivers, lakes, ponds, wetlands, streams, the ocean) pose risks, but with the help from groups like PWP and their volunteers, these risks can be made a little less likely so you can paddle with less pollution, less foam and less broken glass in your river.  We are looking forward to our next paddle with PWP!!

What can you do?

  • Join PWP for a paddle or donate to support their events
  • Clean up a shoreline near you, but take the proper safety precautions
  • Avoid buying (or at least properly dispose of) foam, plastic bottles, etc.

For more photos of the event and the debris pile, see PWP’s Facebook pages. For more information about Paddle Without Pollution, their mission, their events, and how to donate to support their work, visit their web site.

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