Garbage rowing on big tides


Wind kicked up on the north end of Admiralty Island where no one lives. Thinking it might be wind that sometimes blows for half an hour at the bottom of the ebb then stops, and being in the rowboat, I anchored near shore to take a nap. Woke up to a doe and fawn a few meters away stepping delicately along just above high tide line. It was one of those Alaska moments when you feel like, “Ah, this is primal as the Garden of Eden.” Then I realized that what they were stepping over was garbage. (“Hey Adam, sorry about the mess.”)

A nice thing about row boats being slow is that diversions to pick up trash don’t feel like you’re breaking rhythm. As you get your exercise in the big, free gym that has sea birds, seals, whales and alpenglow working up the mountains, picking up garbage makes you feel you did something to earn being there. The best garbage rowing is when big moon tides lift what’s collected over the summer and puts it in motion. Generally, floating stuff congregates close to shore in the back eddies where the water’s slower but sometimes, especially in fall, it rafts together and moves up and down Gastineau Channel; a snaking tidal funk-monster of logs, limbs, sea weed, cruise ship discharge scuzz, fish protein from thousands of dead hatchery salmon and an abundant diversity of plastic trash. When currents are rocking under the Juneau-Douglas bridge and everything’s swirling around it’s a great game to row or sail the boat in circles catching bottles and cans.

One time I found a human head in a kelp mat near the J-D bridge. From the boat all you could see was part of the face and hair billowing in the water. Muttering “Aw, Jesus.” and wishing I was someplace  else I rowed up to it, took a deep breath, grabbed it by the hair and pulled expecting to haul up a body.  Pop! Out it came and there’s me face to face with a high-end mannequin’s head. Of course I kept her in the boat a few days to yank out from under the thwart and make people jump. Walking up the harbor ramp one time, holding it by the hair I noticed a man staring. In my best Teutonic accent I shook the head at him and growled, “She was not obedient!” The guy didn’t even crack a smile. As I walked by he just pressed himself to the side of the rail then hurried on his way.

People around here point a long finger at the cruise ship lobby and the legislature for creating toxic ‘mixing zones,’ lax air pollution standards and dumping waste at sea. I’m good with that but the fact is, in Gastineau Channel except for cigarette butts and the occasional lost rat guard, cruise ships get their tons of solid waste to the landfill. Nearly all the visible garbage in local waters is from locals. Alcohol and pop bottles dominate. There’s a curious disconnect to neatly putting the cap on an empty bottle then pitching it overboard. North of the bridge is good for a few kick balls, soccer balls or basket balls every year. Sandy Beach is an endless supply of tennis balls where people throw them in the water for their dogs. Just below the channel’s surface an immortal army of plastic bags drifts endlessly as jellyfish.

Empty plastic bait herring wrappers wax and wane with the fishing seasons. They come with Styrofoam trays. There’s a song about humans blowing up the world and all that survives are cockroaches and Styrofoam. The refrain is mother cockroach singing to her children, ‘Whoa-ooh, Styrofoam-that’s my home.’ Angling to pick up the stuff I always sing that line. Sometimes it gets stuck in my head which is almost as irritating as Styrofoam. In the channel you find Styrofoam cups, Styrofoam insulation, Styrofoam crab floats, coolers, and flotation billets big enough to walk on. It’s easy to spot because it floats high. Birds and fish can starve with a stomach full of it. Up and down the channel it goes, breaking into more, smaller, bits of—Styrofoam. No one knows how long it can last in the environment but optimistic estimates are at least 500 years. The city of San Francisco just became the first American metropolis to ban Styrofoam containers. Hooray for the City by the Bay!

Picking up ocean garbage is an avocation for some of us and a life passion for people like Marcus Erikson of the Algalita Foundation. Algalita has been a leader both in documenting the Pacific gyre garbage patch and working to raise awareness. In 2008 Erikson and Joel Paschal of Algalita built a raft of 15,000 plastic bottles, a discarded Cessna fuselage and a mast. They sailed it from Long Beach California to Hawaii: 2,600 miles, four hurricanes and, in one of those amazing what-are-the-odds-of-that sea stories, they met up with world famous ocean rower Roz Savage in the middle of the Pacific and hung out with her for a few hours.

Years ago Erikson spoke at the University of Alaska in Juneau along with another man who was involved with picking up trawl nets and big commercial fishing debris in the Aleutians. Alaska communities, especially on the outer coast have been active for decades in removing entanglement hazards, plastic toys from con-ex containers that fell off barges in bad weather and, since 2011, they’ve picked up tons of flotsam that drifted over from the Fukushima disaster. This summer volunteers with Gulf of Alaska Keepers picked up 200 tons of garbage from two uninhabited islands way out in the Gulf. There are other ongoing local efforts at keeping garbage out of our waters. Fish and Game has the ‘Lose the Loop’ campaign that encourages people to cut any plastic loop, like packing bands around commercial herring bait boxes for example, before disposing of it and Alaska Sea Grant made an outreach film to commercial fishers, ‘Marine Debris in Alaska: Trashing Your Livelihood.’

The world’s biggest one-day volunteer effort for cleaning up marine debris is the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup Day in September. More than half a million people from 91 countries participate. For day to day pick-up some progressive communities feel keeping that stuff out of the water is money well spent. Nanaimo, BC, for example, pays a guy in a beat-up old boat to chug about the harbors picking up garbage. We could do that here. Hauling abandoned boats, 55 gallon drums, plastic junk etc. from the water and beaches would be a great summer job for Alaska high school students. They’d practice seamanship, stewardship and have a unique item on their resumes.

Until that happens how about securing plastics, picking up what blows out of the boat and bringing a container to haul some junk to recycling or the dump? Maybe we can’t pick up all the garbage in the ocean but a bottle, a tarp, a piece of line—we can own those. If the boat’s high in the water a dip net on a long handle works as well on garbage as it does on fish. In fact, if trash was halibut the place would be picked clean. Open season, no limit. And if anybody happens across a headless mannequin bobbing around maybe we can work something out.

photo by Tim Miles