Crew pilots items collected on river cleanups to race victory
John Reiss knows what it takes to pull a porch glider out of a creek: three strong bodies, a little determination and a sturdy canoe.
It's one of the most memorable items that Reiss, 47, of Crafton has helped a team of volunteers dredge from Pennsylvania's waterways through his work with the locally based nonprofit Paddle Without Pollution.
“You're mud from one end to the other by the time you're done,” said fellow volunteer Peg Willard, 57, of White Oak, “but it's worth it.”
On Friday, four members of Paddle Without Pollution took first place in the “Anything That Floats” race along the North Shore River Walk as part of the EQT Pittsburgh Three Rivers Regatta. Their torpedo-shaped vessel was made up of 150 water bottles and six 55-gallon barrels, with a plastic skull positioned on the bow — all items collected on river cleanups.
“The unique thing about what we do is that it's fun and it's effective,” said Paddle Without Pollution board member Jesse Twichell, 34, of Penn Hills, who designed the makeshift boat that set a record at the Fourth of July event. “It's sort of two in one: It's conservation and stewardship through this channel of recreation.”
Using kayaks, canoes and paddle boards to get to places that larger watercraft cannot, the nonprofit's “water warriors” have removed more than 33 tons of litter and illegally dumped debris from Pennsylvania's rivers, creeks and lakes since 2011.
They cleared out about 6,500 pounds of garbage in the first six cleanups of 2014 alone.
“It doesn't take a whole lot of money to do what we do, but we make a big impact,” Twichell said.
The nonprofit also runs educational camps for at-risk youths and is working with state officials on developing a new water trail at Presque Isle State Park by 2015.
Executive Director David Rohm and his wife and co-founder, Melissa, take extra steps to liven up service projects, such as by giving out prizes for most improved paddlers and most interesting finds. Among some stand-out items: doll heads, horse shoes, safety cones, toilets and large slabs of emerald glass. And plenty of tires, particularly along a problematic three-mile stretch of Chartiers Creek in the South Hills, David Rohm said.
“The hardest part is knowing that no matter how well we clean up an area, we can come back six months later and it can be even worse,” Twichell said. “So much trash gets flushed into the rivers, it can be disheartening.
“But we just keep going out, and we get more and more people each time,” he added, “so I feel good about that.”
The group has filled its boats for a Youghiogheny River cleanup set for July 26, though volunteers always are welcome to bring their own kayaks or canoes. Spots are open for six cleanups through Oct. 11.
Natasha Lindstrom is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8514.