ON THE SCENE: Clean-up day highlights AuSable River work

Autumn Aardsma of Jay and her clean-up crew of kids pose at the Wilmington Town Beach on Saturday, April 22 during the AuSable River clean-up day hosted by the Ausable River Association. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

On Saturday, April 22, Earth Day, more than 80 volunteers fanned out along the AuSable River’s East and West branches, picking up trash accumulated over the past year.

Wearing Day-Go bright green T-shirts, the volunteers cleaned both sides of the parallel roadways and down to the riverbanks. The Ausable River Association organized the clean-up drive — an agency dedicated to strengthening the health of the Ausable and its tributaries.

Association president Wally Walters, who spent 30 years in the U.S. Army with a large part of that connected to the Army Corps of Engineers, values the association’s science-based approach to maintaining and managing rivers and their contribution to the health of the watershed.

“It does appropriate and necessary improvements in what has been a historically distressed water system, improvements that make it a much more livable environment for nature and people,” said Walters. “It uses natural methods of doing so, such as trying to minimize ice jambs and keeping the river flowing.”

Walters said that the real stewards of the AuSable are the communities along its banks, their citizens and elected officials, and state agencies like the Department of Transportation. He said the association works with all stakeholders, providing them with insights they have gained from research and monitoring the watershed and the wildlife within them and along their banks. The associaton’s goal is to help them better understand the value of a healthy river system and the steps they can take to strengthen its health.

Ausable River Association Stream Restoration Manager Gary Henry and BioDiversity Research Manager Carrianne Pershyn. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

“I think that this combination of investors is the secret sauce for strengthening the health of the AuSable, its tributaries, which includes bodies of water like Lake Placid, and Mirror Lake,” said Walters.

As part of that, he praised the efforts of our congressional and state representatives to generate federal and state support for research, river restoration and addressing invasive species.

The challenges are significant as both branches of the AuSable have been impacted by dams, the use of riprap along banks, houses built in floodplains, rivers dredged for gravel, roadways built tightly alongside, the heavy use of salt in the winters, lumbering and litter — increasingly petroleum-based. Added to that, climate change and increasing warm weather impacts our cold-water fisheries and plant life, such as escalating amounts of algal blooms in such waterways as Mirror Lake.

“It’s going to take a lot of work to bring the rivers back to a healthy natural state,” said Walters. “A complication is that the rivers’ sources are in the High Peaks. The High Peaks are steep; as a result, there is a lot of transport of things like sediment going through Keene toward Jay. We have a lot of inversions, meaning the valley floor is often colder than the hillsides, which contributes to ice jambs. So, dealing with these rivers is unique and requires lots of good science and research.”

Biodiversity Research Manager Carrianne Pershyn and Walter Quality Research Manager Phil Snyder lead the research at AsRA while Stream Restoration Manager Gary Henry implements research and plans and the association’s stream restoration efforts.

“Historically, the fix used to address streambank erosion was to cover the sides of a river with blocks of cut or blasted stone called riprap,” said Henry. “What people realized all that does is protect the bank right there, but it destroys the habitat in the river and shifts downstream all that energy that used to pound the bank resulting in erosion somewhere else. We bury outward-facing root wads in the banks that will sustain the shoreline, protect the habitat, and absorb the stream’s energy. In addition, they stimulate the food web, the bugs that the fish feed on, bringing them back to that section.”

Henry’s team also works to narrow the stream’s channel as a means of helping it move the gravel and sediment downstream, which helps reduce ice buildup and jams.

Pershyn strengthens the streambanks by engaging volunteers in planting hundreds of saplings. The tree roots help underpin the banks while the shade from their branches helps water stay cool, which is vital for native trout.

On April 22, though, the focus was on cleaning up trash. At the Wilmington Town Beach, volunteers were provided clear bags for recyclable waste, bright orange bags for trash, gloves, advice on protecting themselves from ticks, and an array of river sections they could select for cleaning. As the shorelines had not bloomed, trash was pretty easy to locate.

Long-time volunteer Susie Runyon of Wilmington, who works for the Adirondack Land Trust, said she was out because she cares for the community and the river water quality. Runyon took on a section from Keene’s new mountain bike trails to the pull-out on the way to Upper Jay.

Autumn Aardsma of Jay volunteered, as did her four kids, Makayla, Leah, Alaina and Caleb.

“We just moved back to the area last August, and we wanted to get out and meet other people in the community and do something to keep the area beautiful.”

The kids said they either volunteered or were volunteered to come, but now all were glad to do their part. Their reasoning included picking up trash and seeing what they could find, which was quite interesting.

“We found a dead coyote,” said one showing me a cellphone photo of them all grouped around it.

“We also found beer and soda cans, plastic cups and garbage,” said another.

All said they enjoyed the experience and would be willing to do it again next year.

Down in Keene, cleaning along the East Branch at Marcy Field, the Rev. John Sampson, Pam Gothner and Pete Suttmeier from Keene Valley discovered other surprises.

“I always think of our town and this area as being very clean, at least in comparison to where I used to live,” said Sampson. “But even in this clean town, we picked up bags and bags of trash. We found a pair of jeans, pieces of cars that I guess got into car crashes, lots of diapers, and lots of stuff that we as a people put out there.”

All in all, volunteers collected over 3,000 pounds of trash, and, with additional volunteers, could have gathered more. Best would be fewer people tossing their garbage out of car and truck windows in the first place.

The Association needs volunteers to help plant over 500 saplings along the shore of the East Branch near Upper Jay on May 5 and 12 — both Fridays. Times and locations are available on the association’s website.

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

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