PRINCE — By the time volunteers completed their float down the New River, they likely had enough car parts — break pads, rotors, a variety of tires — to build their own vehicle.
Commercial whitewater outfitters participated Monday in an annual industry cleanup from Glade Creek to the Grandview Sandbar to remove trash that collected on riverbanks.
Tires are a major problem on the New River, and volunteers found more than 100 Monday. River guides, West Virginia Professional River Outfitters, the National Park Service, and the New River Conservancy organize the event. It is supported by the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, which collects the trash found during the cleanup.
“Our rafts are turning into barges,” shouted cleanup organizer Melanie Seiler, who is also a raft guide at Adventures on the Gorge and is the West Virginia state director for the American Canoe Association.
One eddy in particular is a kind of “tire Mecca.” Guides abandoned their rafts and kayaks to wade from shore to the center of the river, feeling for tires along the bottom with hands, feet and special rebar “tire pokers.”
At least five rafts were filled with tires by the time volunteers called it quits, some stacked so high that a guide needed directions for paddling.
Bill Parker, a South District river ranger, said trash from dams is also an issue on the New River. While states out west have required the Army Corps of Engineers to collect and remove trash collected at dams, West Virginia has not.
“They open up special gates and get behind trash with barges and shove it through holes and downriver,” Parker said.
This contributes to garbage in and around the river that is brought and left by visitors or washed downstream during heavy rains. One-time use plastic, especially bait containers and bottles, are significant polluters of the river and a “problem the whole world is facing,” said North District river ranger Matt McQueen.
Organizations have been pushing for a bottle bill in hopes of curbing litter that would require a deposit to purchase bottled drinks. Something like a five-cent deposit would be refunded once the bottle was returned to discourage leaving such refuse on the river, McQueen said.
One can find any number of interesting treasures and artifacts during a river cleanup. Chelsea Blunt, an intern with the New River Conservancy in West Jefferson, North Carolina, said she hadn’t found anything too heralded, such as baby doll heads, that day.
“Some guides collect them,” Blunt said with a laugh.
The occupants of one boat offered to “sell” a lawn chair to another for “two bottles and a doll head.” A group found a trash can, at first thought to be convenient for the cleanup, but then turned out to be defunct. Another found a large green table, perfect for the home or a few rounds of beer pong, someone suggested.
Staff members and guides give up a day of work on the river for a day of giving back, Seiler said. Seiler has been a guide for 17 years and an organizer of the annual event for 10. Guides started to pick up litter in the gorge area of the New River, but then realized it could make an impact further upstream, too. This year brought one of its largest turnouts to date, with 12 rafts and seven ducky kayaks, she said.
“It’s good to see the same people coming out year after year and having the same commitment year after year,” Seiler said.
Not everyone on the trip was close to the whitewater industry, though. Monica Hambrick, a recent West Virginia University graduate and rock climber, was on the New River for the first time.
“I think it’s awesome, because if this is a resource that we’re using, we should contribute. We should keep it and help keep it beautiful,” Hambrick said of the cleanup.
McQueen and Seiler said the cleanup allows people to give back to the river and the gorge area in general, which Seiler said is often referred to as “the Grand Canyon of the east.”
“It is beautifying exactly where they’re going to be working and the river sections they’re going to be on,” Seiler said. “I feel that they have more ownership of the areas we’re in and how we use it and how we share it with others as well. It brings a whole conscientiousness to recreating.”
Reach Rachel Molenda at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5102.