BONNER — After 14 years of removing trash from the Blackfoot River, volunteers are beginning to notice a real difference.
The heavy logging equipment, car parts, guns, and other large articles have been slowly removed over the years. And the cans and bottles, which account for a significant majority of the trash removed, are also less common. In 2005, 101 volunteers removed 3,099 cans and bottles. Last year, 85 volunteers found 441.
Paul Sharkey, 62, has been scuba diving and snorkeling in the Blackfoot for 40 years and participating in the Blackfoot River Cleanup for about a dozen. He said he sees a lot less trash these days because of the effort to distribute river trash bags to floaters, and because of the annual cleanup.
On Saturday morning, after about 80 other volunteers had begun to make their way down the river walking, floating, or snorkeling, Sharkey sat on the riverbank and changed into his wet suit.
“I really enjoy this river,” Sharkey said. “I want to keep it as pristine as it can be. And it’s good exercise, treasure hunting. You get to see things that no one else gets to see down there.”
Sharkey prefers snorkeling to walking along the banks. He sees fish and doesn’t have to worry about rolling his ankles on the rocks. The most common treasure Sharkey finds in the river are sunglasses from floaters.
“The upper river is full of sunglasses,” Sharkey said. “Years ago, the kids, I think they were college kids, the tubers up above would lose Oakley sunglasses and Ray Ban sunglasses, Smiths.”
Sharkey used to sell the sunglasses in yard sales, but nowadays he finds mostly cheap brands. Likely, he said, because floaters know not to bring expensive gear on the river.
Kelly Spears rowed the boat while Sharkey snorkeled. Spears is a river guide, and he said he tries to always pick up trash in the river when he sees it. He encouraged people to not bring glass on the river, which is both dangerous and illegal, and to use the river trash bags.
“We like to all keep it clean so people can enjoy their time out here,” Spears said.
Some volunteers were hardly bigger than the trash bags they carried. Leah and Christian Beach brought their four children — Caedon, Iain, Kylie and Alana — who ranged in age from 18 months to 7 years.
“We just kind of wanted to check out a new place to take the kids for the day, and we found out they were doing the cleanup, so we were like, ‘Cool, the kids can all learn a valuable lesson and then we’ll swim after we help clean up,’” said Leah Beach.
“We just call it a really yucky scavenger hunt.”
The only gloves available were size extra-large, but the kids wore them anyway, and picked up cigarette butts and plastic bottles with the glove fingers dangling down. They are already good hikers and usually point out trash along the trails, Beach said.
“We have a small farm back in Corvallis, so we’re outside pretty much every day. We try to make it a point in the summer to get out every two weeks and do something different. So this is our adventure day.”
The cleanup is hosted by the Blackfoot Home and Community Club, which supplies cleaning gear to volunteers and hosts a barbecue after the morning cleaning efforts. The group also counts and records all of the trash that is collected to keep track of the progress and trash trends.
One of the organizers, Lynn Gontarek-Garberson, said the river-cleaning movement has begun to spread across the state.
“One of the good things is that we’ve had several other rivers start to do this,”Gontarek-Garberson said. “There’s a young lady trying to get one going in the Bitterroot, in the Madison River. We’ve had people come from Oregon.”
The hope, she says, is that this effort continues to grow, so that the river stays clean for the thousands of people each year who float, fish, swim and camp near it.