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ON THE SCENE: Spring cleaning, AuSable River style

AuSable River Association Donor Outreach Manager Tyler Merriam, far left, goes over a map of a cleanup area with Ben and Susie Runyon Saturday, April 23 at the Wilmington town beach. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Nearly a hundred volunteers picked up a ton of trash from along the East and West branches of the AuSable River Saturday, April 23, as part of the Ausable River Association’s second annual Earth Month Ausable River Cleanup.

As one volunteer, Sue Conner, put it, the good news is they collected so much trash, and the bad news is there was so much trash to collect.

The cleanup focus areas were along the AuSable River between Keene and Jay and Lake Placid and Wilmington. The Association partnered with the Rotary Clubs of AuSable Valley and Lake Placid, One Tree Planted, NRS and Revo Sunglasses. Driving along the route after the cleanup, the difference made by the volunteers in the overall improved appearance was noticeable. Not so apparent, yet critically important, is the value of keeping trash out of our waterways in the first place.

Plastic products left along the watershed can get quickly shredded by the rough and tumble of our fast-flowing boulder-filled mountain streams. The resultant plastic particles get ingested by fish and other wildlife that prey on fish, including humans. As of 2019, researchers estimated there were seven billion pieces of microplastics in Lake Champlain, a number that has increased since then.

Microplastics are divided into two categories: manufactured initially to be tiny, such as microbeads used in cosmetics, medicine and textiles; and those broken down due to biological, chemical and physical weathering. These secondary microplastics make up the bulk of what’s in our national and global waterways. Of either type, the vast majority of these plastics leach different toxic and carcinogenic chemicals into the soil and waterways, which are not suitable for any living creature.

Sue Conner and Gerry Crowe helped clean up the Flume area in Wilmington. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

In addition, tires, cans and other items that can hold liquid become breeding pools for mosquitoes and other critters, resulting in a nasty woodland, fishing, golfing or other outdoor experience.

Third is safety. Rusted metal, broken glass, nails and other items pose many hazards in their own right.

“If we can keep this trash from entering the river, it will help protect fish and aquatic insect habitats,” said Ausable River Association Biodiversity Research Manager Carrianne Pershyn. “Our work is to think of the whole ecosystem, which includes all the fish, insects, birds, deer and other mammals, newts, salamanders and other amphibians, frogs and toads, and other critters in the area. They all rely on each other for food, habitat and shelter. By our helping clean and protect the habitats, we are helping protect the entire ecosystem within the watershed.”

AuSable River cleanup organizers surveyed last year’s volunteers to learn how to improve the experience. One outcome was creating detailed Google Earth maps of the rivers so volunteers could select a river section to clean and see where to leave their collected trash to be gathered up at the end. Organizers can then check in with volunteers by section and determine if more help or supplies are needed.

Another improvement was including live music provided by volunteer Tommy Gomez of the band R.E.N.O. at the concluding lunch at the Wilmington beach, a feature to both thank and nourish the volunteers and foster community and connections amongst the river keepers.

Tony Hanf, left, gives out bags and other cleanup gear Saturday, April 23 at the Wilmington town beach. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Ausable River Association Donor Outreach Manager Tyler Merriam said that the cleanup effort is critically important for the watershed’s health as any trash impacts water quality and the biodiverse habitats. Plus, trash is an eyesore, and it degrades the appearance of our communities and the recreational experience of our visitors upon which our economy depends.

Ann Sherwood and Tom Beardsley, who cleaned the Copperas Pond trailhead area and around Shadow Rock Pool, agreed. They learned about the cleanup on the Jay Community News website. They were pleased to join the cleanup effort as they see trash while out running or walking in the community.

“Trash accumulating along the road is unsightly; it’s not environmentally safe and damages wildlife habitat,” said Beardsley. “We just want to keep a special part of the world nice, and its planet thing. We’re fortunate to be able to help clean up this area, but really, it’s an effort that everybody has to make around the planet. Litter like this has to be fixed, be cleaned up everywhere.”

The good news in Wilmington’s popular Flume area is that certain aspects were better than expected, though there was plenty of trash to collect.

“We’ve been doing very well, I mean picking up a lot of litter,” said Sue Conner. “I’ve been surprised by how much we’ve collected. It’s a shame that we have to, but that’s OK.”

Maggie Rokoszak and her two children helped clean up the Marcy Field area in Keene. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

“We thought that there might be more down in the flume, but it seems that people have been picking up after themselves down there,” said Gerry Crowe. “Most of the trash we’ve found has been higher up near the road.”

“To me, most of the trash comes out of people’s cars,” said Conner. “What can we do but clean it up. What’s the song that keeps going through my head, Trash by New York Dolls. ‘Trash, pick it up!'”

Down on the River Road, Hortensia Antezana, who lives in Keene Valley, reported similar results.

“I have collected mostly papers, plastic bags, energy bar wrappers, bottles, beer cans, and plastic containers,” said Hortensia. “I am a hiker, and I have always carried a bag and cleaned up the trails of whatever trash I find, so this is doing the same thing but along the river.”

“We live across the river and participate every year,” said Caitlin Bottcher out with her young daughter. “We haven’t selected our spot to clean yet; we have to check and see what’s available on the West Branch. We volunteer because we live on the river, we play on the river, and our business is the Hungry Trout Fly Shop, which relies on the river’s cleanliness. Plus, my husband is on the AsRA board. We want to support the work of the Association on Earth Day.”

Liz Metzger, left, uses maps to advise and help people select the area they wish to clean up on Saturday, April 23 at the Wilmington town beach. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

As for the results: “I think it went great, we had at least a hundred people show up, and the system we set up seemed to go quite well,” said Merriam. “They pulled out 1,940 pounds of trash, just about what we pulled out last year, but from a wider area of coverage. That’s telling me that we’re making a difference year by year as we see an overall reduction in this region’s trash. It’s exciting.”

AsRA’s goal is to keep expanding the reach of the cleanup so it eventually expands all the way to Lake Champlain. Needed is more volunteers and organizations joining in the annual clean-up and helping to increase awareness of the importance of keeping our watershed clean in the first place.

(Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley. He has been covering events for the News for more than 15 years.)