Getting Dirty

With gloves and old clothes, I arrived with others around 8 a.m. at Buckaloons campground south of Warren. We fuelled ourselves with donuts and coffee for a trip on the Allegheny River. Wielding buckets and bags, we climbed into our canoes and paddled downstream to start the search. Birds called, fish jumped and turtles warming themselves in the morning sun splashed back into the water. The creatures were noticed but overlooked in search of a more desirable prize that day.

After a few minutes of paddling, a glimmer of metallic blue stood out among the green and brown landscape and we headed directly towards it. “Beer can on the right!” I exclaimed. We grabbed it as we passed and threw it into a fresh trash bag. “Is that a tire or a log?” my canoeing partner asked. Venturing a guess it was man-made material, I steered the canoe to shore and, with enthusiasm, he stepped out into knee deep water to haul the tire aboard.

This is how my first Allegheny River Cleanup started last year. I was pleased to take part, along with 47 other volunteers that day. For me, seeing trash along the trail or shoreline is like hearing a conversation peppered with vulgarities. It’s offensive and doesn’t belong in the beauty of the natural world.

Not only is trash along our waterways just plain ugly, it is also a hazard to the health of the land and the animals that live there, including us. Animals can ingest debris that causes them to feel full when they’re not or leach chemicals into their bodies as the litter breaks down. Fishing line can entangle animals and inhibit them from finding food, escaping from predators or breathing. Litter can also affect the water quality by adding chemicals to the water. If a paint can is thrown into the water, where do you think the leftover paint goes? And when I wear shoes in the creek, it is not just the rocks that I’m concerned about but the glass, metal and other sharp objects that may be present.

Even those that don’t live near the water can still affect it with litter. In many towns and cities storm drains flow directly to streams and rivers. That means litter on sidewalks, streets and gutters is swept into the storm drain system when it rains. I think EPA officials said it best in describing the impacts littering in the city has on the coast. “When it rains, you don’t go to the beach, your litter does.”

River clean-ups are simple opportunities to make a visible impact. While I’m sure seasoned “trash pickers” have perfected their techniques, there is very little you have to know to pick up trash. You just have to have a willingness to get a little dirty.

If you have a sense of discovery and humor it feels less like work and more like a treasure hunt. Sometimes it is amazing what you find. I recall finding dozens of beer cans, plastic soda and water bottles, plastic bags, tires and Styrofoam. My favorite find from last year was a Magic 8 ball.

I don’t have to ask the Magic 8 ball to know “it is decidedly so” that after a clean-up there is a sense of accomplishment in what you’ve done mixed with disgust at what we as a society have done both intentionally and unintentionally. Last year during the Conewango Creek and Allegheny River clean ups, volunteers picked up 132 tires, more than 12,500 pounds of metal, 23 buckets of recyclable plastic and 37 buckets of recyclable glass. And here’s a short list of the more interesting trash, most of which went into one of the five dumpsters filled: a kid’s purple couch, a guard rail, an AT&T computer tower, an Ozzy Osborne cassette tape, a sliding board, two catalytic converters, a meat grinder, a school chair and a mailbox. And a Magic 8 ball.

Almost everything we do as humans creates some kind of waste. Finding a longterm solution to our trash problem is more multifaceted then a once-a-year clean-up. Solutions include the prevention of litter, reusing and recycling items and the reduction of one-time use products. But clean-ups are an effective way to make a sizable impact. A day of cleaning up trash can create a lifetime of awareness of what we throw away.

If you feel inspired to make our waterways a little cleaner, you are in luck. There are two cleanups happening in early September. On Saturday, Sept. 7, the Conewango Creek Watershed Association (CCWA) is hosting a cleanup on the Conewango from Russell to Warren. Volunteers can meet at Larimer Park, Russell, 9 a.m. CCWA works to promote the health of the creek so that landowners, citizens, visitors and municipal officials together take an active role in sustaining the resources of the creek and its watershed. Please preregister via email at or call (716) 569-2345 ext. 39 or visit

The Conewango Creek Cleanup is part of the larger Allegheny River Cleanup taking place on multiple days during the following week. Different sections of the river will be cleaned on September 9, 10, 13 and 14. The trash-filled week culminates in a “River Riot” party to swap stories, discuss cool trash finds and thank volunteers.

We only have one Conewango Creek with kingfishers swooping by and otters eating mussels on the shore. We only have one Allegheny River with Bald Eagles flying overhead and trout swimming below. So, why not make it look the best we can? Arm yourself with gloves, old clothes and a sense of humor and pick your weekend to come out at clean!

Audubon is located at 1600 Riverside Road, just off Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails and Liberty viewing area are currently open from 9:00am until 6:00pm to avoid the most heavy mosquito activity. Please remember to use insect repellent. The center is open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when we open at 1 p.m. Visit for more information or call (716) 569-2345. Katie Finch is a Naturalist at Audubon.