It wasn’t until icy water from a slimy plastic bag gushed out over my lap that I began to reconsider the logic of picking up trash from a small boat.
Over one hundred volunteers gave up their Saturday morning to clean up garbage and debris at Lodi Lake Park as part of the annual Coastal Cleanup effort. I joined a group of local kayakers who take the project onto the water. Though we were fewer than a dozen, we were able to cover a big stretch of riverbank.
For the last 30 years, volunteers all across California have met up at lakes, rivers, beaches and other waterways to rid the banks and shorelines of plastic bags, glass bottles, aluminum cans and any other piece of garbage. Last year, workers collected 750,000 pounds of trash from 54 different counties.
I rolled into the Lodi Lake parking lot at 7:45 a.m. with my bright yellow kayak in the back. After filling out a quick registration form, a fellow kayaker helped me haul my boat to the launch dock. I was handed a grabber by Judd Atwater, an event volunteer and teacher at Lodi High School. Kathy Grant, watershed education coordinator, provided a few massive garbage bags. There were buckets, too, but a bag was easier to squish into the boat.
I snapped together my paddle. My keys clipped securely to my life vest. I climbed in the kayak and slid gently from the dock to join the group. We were off.
My first find was a floating green tennis ball along the lake’s east bank. Someone’s dog must have gone home a little upset. It was a like bobbing for apples to pluck it from the water.
Next, I snapped up a half-submerged Doritos bag. Then a yogurt carton. Then a water bottle. Everything went in the bag.
Along with what appeared to be endless small plastic bits, most of the garbage floating among the reeds wouldn’t have been out of place at a picnic. It was though a barbecue birthday party fell in the lake and began accumulating slime.
It was a beautiful morning, though. The sun hit the water just right to make it glitter but the morning air was still cool. A couple paddle strokes was enough to glide along the bank, eyeing into the reeds. I slowed to reach over with my grabber, plucked a bit of Styrofoam out of the water, and paddled on.
Thanks to the Delta breezes hitting the smooth lake every evening, garbage tends to be pushed due west, and ends up in the tule reeds and cattails on the east-facing banks. There’s dozens of tiny inlets along the reeds leading to tucked away, quiet areas. Garbage easily floats into these zones, often shaded by big oak trees, but has a hard time floating back out.
Sounds like a job for a kayaker. Someone with deft paddle skills and great coordination. Instead, there was me. Like the garbage, I found it easy to slip into a small slough. I picked up a brown beer bottle, two soda cans and what looked like a damaged Tupperware container. A quick glance let me know the job was done. But there wasn’t enough room to turn around.
Okay. Paddle backwards, right? No. I hit a branch as I tried to dig the paddle in on the left of my kayak, then shook leaves and dust over myself. Great.
I shoved the paddle into the kayak at my feet and reached up the grab the branch by hand. I ignored the spiderweb I was definitely touching and pushed backward. Too much. I was out of the tree, but into the reeds behind me. Oh well. A couple of sloppy turning strokes propelled me back into the main river stretch.
The adventure went on for more than two hours of closely combing the banks. By 11 a.m., my arms and core muscles were complaining. I came around a bend to find three kayakers heading back the way we’d come. They reached the edge of the lake area, and it was time to turn back home. Perfect timing.
However, collecting the garbage is only half the job. The California Coastal Commission and Ocean Conservancy request that all the trash is sorted, counted and recorded to provide data for future conservation efforts.
This was the moment I was glad I had signed up with the kayakers. I brought my orange bag of trash over to Grant, who was instructing a group of students.
“Hey Kathy, where do I start sorting this?” I asked.
“Oh, put it with the rest of the bags from the lake by the boathouse. We’ll get some young volunteers to count it out,” she said.
Awesome. Touching each piece of wet trash one time was quite enough for me. I dropped the bag on a waiting tarp and returned to the dock for my boat and belongings.
I was sprinkled with lake water, algae was drying on my baseball cap, and the bottom of my kayak was strewn with reeds like ribbons.
It was time to head home and clean up. And eat a burger. Helping out the environment makes me hungry.
Contact Sara Jane Pohlman at firstname.lastname@example.org.