The big cleanup

Something shiny glinted on the bottom of the river. We tied our canoe to a tree, got out and waded in. Was it cold? Yes. But we were on a mission. The further out we walked, the harder it was to balance against the current. Shielding our eyes from the sun, we searched, step by step. I was up to my waist before I saw it, bent over, reached down, and grabbed. Up came a beer can. Victory.

Trivial? Not to us. We were participating, for the sixth time, in the annual American Rivers National River Cleanup and removing trash from the Saranac River. We were dressed in long pants, socks, rubber gloves and old beat-up shoes to protect us from glass, metal, floating debris, dense bushes, slimy mud and tiny critters. This year’s June event involved 21 volunteers and 11 canoes.

Launching from the river walk at Saranac Lake’s Dorsey Street parking lot, my friend Kathy and I headed downstream. Seeing the village by boat brings a different perspective. Several houses and apartment buildings share lovely back yards with the river, invisible if walking by on the sidewalk. The current carried us along, first under the Dorsey Street bridge, then under the bridge over Broadway, past the Left Bank dining porch and Scott’s Florist to duck under Church Street. The lunch crowd at Nori’s watched from the windows as we journeyed on under Woodruff Street and past Munn’s Office Supply. Wildflowers dappled the river banks with a rainbow of colors. Song sparrows sang us along. Another bridge and then, the rapids.

Not serious rapids. However, I was a bit skittish about navigating around the rocks. Kathy, far more confidant, said, “Come on, what’s the problem? Let’s go.” And so we did, tumbling through the boiling water. I steered, she directed. The first churning rapids were easy. We slid through the second and swooshed out the last to shoot under the Pine Street Bridge. I had forgotten how good we were at this.

Searching for debris becomes a game. What crazy stuff could we find? Past years had produced a doll’s head, antique bottles and a queen size mattress which a couple dragged off the bank, balanced across their canoe and brought to the take-out. The usual haul, however, includes mostly tires, cans, glass and plastic.

Some paddlers began the river cleanup right in the middle of the village. They waded in and pulled up a shopping cart, a folding chair, an orange road cone and a misplaced sign that read “Sidewalk Closed.” Makes you wonder — what happened there? We opted to go further, passing “Glass Island” (north of Pine Street) where a few stopped to clean up the perennial broken bottle cemetery, and paddled on to shallower water, stopping there to look for stuff.

Once finished, we climbed back in the boat and moved on. Our contractor bags, stuffed with bottles, cans, hunks of metal, ceramic insulators, plastic pots and wire, were soon overflowing. We cruised the shore line, searching. Frequently, by the time we spotted debris, the river had carried us too far. We’d have to turn and paddle back against the current. Occasionally, the debris was within reach of the canoe. More often, we had to disembark into the water, walk along the shore and fight off branches which stretched out and attacked, as if protecting the riverbank. The bottom was sometimes sandy, sometimes full of slippery rocks, rotting logs or just plain muck. Retrieving debris was a real battle. We got scratched, muddied and wet as we climbed in and out of those boats at least 30 times that day.

This year, the more interesting of our finds included a dirty American flag sunk deep under water (that gave us pause), a small rubber pig, the jaw bone of a fox and a large inflated beach ball. One couple found a waterlogged large air mattress. It took three boats working together to drag the sodden mud-filled heap out of the river. Good team work always pays off. We all agreed the finder of the mattress deserved a prize for finding the most challenging trash of the day.

After a while, the shores were cleaner, allowing us to kick back and drift along, riding the gentle current and taking in the scenery: a sunny grass marsh on one side displaying purple irises and buttercups, tall conifers on the shady side, a few daisies nodding here and there. Large puffy summer clouds beckoned us on. The river wound away from the busy road, flowing on in welcome silence. A tiny newborn fawn was spotted curled up by the water.

I grew up paddling traditional canoes but rarely do so anymore, instead using a light-weight Hornbeck. I miss canoeing and so especially enjoyed this river trip, filled with paddle nostalgia.

Three hours after we started, we pulled in at the Fish and Game Club, boats heaped high with junk and full of sloshing muddy water. Everyone helped to empty the boats, lift them on the carriers, and throw the debris in a dump trailer. We were pleased to find less debris than former years. Was the public becoming more conscientious or was this the result of years of cleaning the river? There was also much less plastic, maybe because of the plastic bag ban.

Work finished, we were driven back to the starting point. When I pulled off my sneakers to dry my feet, out fell a squiggly worm, unsettling evidence of what those shoes had walked through. The day ended with a lunch party, courtesy of Blue Line Brewery, Nori’s Village Market and Grand Union. Beautiful Irish music provided by The Guinea Pig Gang (thanks to Trestle Street Studios) finished off a great day full of laughs, adventure, fatigue and the satisfaction of accomplishment.

This event was sponsored by Adirondack Lakes and Trails Outfitters and St. Regis Canoe Outfitters, with support from the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the Saranac Lake Fish and Game Club.

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Caperton Tissot is a writer living in Saranac Lake.


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