Volunteers being shuttled in john boat

Patuxent River Cleanup 2009

Last updated April 5, 2009



About | Preparation | Event | Eagle | Thank You


April is National Volunteer Month. Not that one shouldn't volunteer during other months but there are many opportunities for volunteerism in April.

I've participated in the Patuxent River Cleanup for the last few years. The beautiful wetlands along the Patuxent (Pax) River are full of wildlife, are scenic, and well maintained. It comes as no surprise that this area is one of my favorite places to paddle on the western shore.

At first glance, the area appears fairly clean. But upon closer examination, one finds a significant amount of trash, mostly in the form of bottles and cans, deposited on the shore and slightly inland. Most of the garbage isn't seen until one steps ashore and walks around. As the water level rises and falls, litter accumulates and gets caught by vegetation. Since the river is the lowest point in the area, trash naturally collects along the shore. Hence, there can be a large amount of garbage in a relatively small area.

My goal in 2009, as in previous years, was to arrange with Patuxent River Park officials to take out several eager, hard working volunteers in canoes and lead them into the marshy areas that others cannot access quite so easily. Together, we would collect garbage to make the Pax a cleaner place. It is a dirty job but one with great personal rewards.

Previous efforts have been fruitful with several hundreds of pounds of trash removed. See
  • March 31, 2007
  • April 5, 2008

  • With luck, 2009 would be just as productive.


    How does one prepare for such an event? The way I see it, there are three steps:
  • Devise a Plan
  • Recruit Volunteers
  • Fine Tune Details

  • Devise a Plan
    In devising a plan, the first thing to do is to pick the date for the event. I e-mailed Stephanie J. (a park naturalist) at Patuxent River Park to find out when their annual cleanup was scheduled. April 4 was the date. Naturally, that would be our date too.

    Next, Stephanie and I sent e-mails back and forth to work on the start and finish times, canoe reservations, tide table information, backup plans, etc. She was very good at getting back to me quickly which made my job easier.

    Finally, I created a recruitment web page to document the details of my plan. This would also be my primary recruiting tool.

    Recruit Volunteers
    Step two was to recruit volunteers. I sent out an e-mail to about 150 people I know through hiking, kayaking, work, etc. This included volunteers from previous cleanups.

    I then made a shotgun effort to recruit by listing my event with the following organizations:
  • Chesapeake Paddler's Association - Forums
  • "Craig's List - Volunteer Opportunities" (broken link as of 2018)
  • Columbia Ski Club - Forums
  • Marine Corps League - Howard County
  • Maryland Outdoor Club
  • Mountain Club of Maryland - Member E-mail List
  • My company - Central Maryland Group
  • My company - Forums

  • I was also fortunate enough to have Paul E. of the Appalachian Mountain Club and Anne D. of the Baltimore Department of Recreation and Parks forward my recruitment web page to people they know.

    The word was getting out. I would surely acquire volunteers.

    Fine Tune Details
    The last step prior to the event began with scouting. I did a reconnaissance of the area on March 27, 2009. I scoped out the river and the amount of trash I could see. I also spoke to Stephanie to confirm that things were good to go.

    Over the next few days, I checked the weather report daily via the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Weather Underground. Both are good but the latter will actually give me forecasts at various hours during the day. Several days out, it looked like it would be warm and sunny. I reported this to my group and went over some frequently asked questions four days prior to the event.

    As the event drew closer, I noticed that there was a fairly strong wind expected from the west. For some reason, wind speed seems harder to predict than temperature or precipitation so I made sure to also see how this prediction changed over time. Would the meteorologists raise or lower their wind speed prediction? The wind was forecast from the west. If there had to be a wind, this would be the ideal direction since our nearest high ground was to our west and we would paddle in a north/south direction.

    The day before the event, the forecast read
    Sunny, with a high near 63. Windy with a west wind between 22 and 31 mph, with gusts as high as 44 mph.

    Wind this strong is REALLY rough, even for experienced kayakers. In canoes, it is even worst because there is so much more boat above the waterline to catch the wind. While there were a good number of experienced paddlers in my group, the majority are beginners or novices. Last year, it was very difficult to control the boats when we launched. Two volunteers in one boat actually decided to go back and join the people helping on land because they were not able to control their boat. This year, the wind would be even stronger. Being able to control the canoes in this condition, even for just a mile, would be extremely difficult. Adding to this the fact that we would need to control the boats after being loaded down with up to 100 pounds of trash and control would be even more difficult. But this was more than a control issue, it was now a SAFETY issue.

    After careful consideration, I told my group that I would see if the park staff would take us out in their pontoon boat and drop us off on the shore to pick up trash. They've done this in previous years with other groups. If it was the case that it was too windy to take out the pontoon boat, then we would just pick up trash in places we could access by foot. Either way, I would see how we could best help the park with their cleanup. Since we would be working with the park, the cleanup would only last until noon. In contrast, my canoe cleanup (which functioned more independently) was originally planned to be an all-day event.

    But people signed up for a CANOE cleanup. This being the case, I let folks know that they were welcome to cancel if this wasn't something they found interesting. I sent out my proposal via e-mail then called all the volunteers that didn't reply quickly. Surprisingly, an overwhelming majority said they would still show up and help because they felt the cleanup was a worthwhile cause, regardless of how it was performed.


    On the morning of the April 4, 2009, 12 volunteers (including myself) showed up, bright eyed and bushy tailed.

    I spoke to Greg L. (the park director), Stephanie, and Greg K. (another park naturalist). We agreed that it would be unsafe to take out the canoes. I discussed options with them. Stephanie said Greg K. could take us out in a big john boat to various places along the shore. While some of us had tall rubber boots, we wouldn't need them. The park provided us with new waders purchased at Cabelas for $50 each. This was the ideal uniform for a marsh cleanup. So much for my prediction of "You will get filthy!" They also provided us with snacks and bottled water.

    After donning our cleanup garb, we posed for a photo then headed out. In the first photo from left to right in the first row are Patricia Z., Margery P., Linda B., and Wade F. In the second row are Wesley F., Barry G., and Mark R. In the third row are me, Joe D., Vince L., and Jsun H. No, I'm not tall, I'm just the only one standing up fully. Lucas F. also participated but he somehow managed to ninja out of this photo.

    We met a fellow by the name of Peter from England who joined our group at the last minute. My guess is he was a volunteer who wasn't part of any club. But he was more than welcome to help us.

    The 12 in my group along with Peter, Greg, and his assistant, Heather, boarded the boat. Then Greg took us upstream on the river (assume I mean Greg K. unless otherwise stated). See second photo. We passed our cleanup site from last year and saw the same beaver lodge. Greg pointed out the foundation that once served to support a railroad bridge that crossed from what is now Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary into Prince Georges County. Trains that ran on this track from 1839 to 1935 transported visitors to Cheseapeake Beach.

    Continuing upstream, we passed Mount Calvert Landing then went up the Western Branch of the Pax. To our south was Mount Calvert Historical and Archaeological Park and to our north was Billingsley Point which marks the oldest structure in Prince Georges County.

    Peter (in third photo), Patricia, and I were the first to disembark. With trash bags in hand, we picked up garbage on the east side of the lower Western Branch. Greg dropped off others further upstream, spaced out at regular intervals.

    Things were significantly different as compared to last year. Of course we were cleaning up a different section of the river and we weren't using canoes. Also, we had waders. But we were finding significantly less trash and the ground on which we walked was considerably more solid. Last year, canoes were ideal because the one mile section we cleared between Jackson's Landing and Mount Calvert contained a tremendous amount of trash, most of which was densely confined to some low-lying areas. Today, however, the trash was sparse so a john boat was the ideal means by which to get around. Greg (fourth photo) used it to transport two and three person teams to cover about 200 meter strips of the shoreline which could be cleaned up in perhaps twenty or thirty minutes. Then, he would move each team to clear another section. This worked like clockwork. We were kept busy picking up trash and he was kept busy moving us around to strategic locations. This continued until the boat was full of trash.

    In addition to the usual bottles and cans, we found a lawn chair, a bowling ball, shotgun shells, a glass bleach jar (made before my time), motor oil bottles, a volleyball, a football, buckets, a big orange and white highway pylon, pieces of styrofoam, and about 9 tires. I'm still hoping for the day when we find an 8-track music tape. While not in the category of trash, we also found a deer skeleton. The ribcage was on the shore and other bones were slightly further inland. A very intact skull (see fifth photo) was also found, complete with antlers. It was a seven point buck! I ended up taking the skull home.

    Greg said he saw a beaver. I saw a snake but I think it was dead. Several red-winged blackbirds were out. Later in the day, we saw some turtles sunbathing. See sixth photo. We saw quite a few osprey but few herons. But the most impressive bird would be seen later.

    I was working with a really good group. Everyone was a hard worker but there were a few that I know had particularly interesting backgrounds/skills:
  • Barry: A veteran at hauling out trash in his kayak. See seventh photo.
  • Joe: He has extensive experience picking up trash in marshy areas in New Jersey. He's rigged up his kayak for trash collection and has even created his own extension bottle grabber! He's a pro at this! I'm sure I can learn much from him. See eighth photo.
  • Lucas: He helped me last year with this cleanup. He has helped in several other cleanups as well along with trail maintenance.
  • Vince: I've paddled with him a few times. Just a week prior, we were out kayaking further upstream on the Pax and he was picking up trash. It is just something he does. He likes to leave the place he paddles cleaner than he finds it. He drove all the way from Pennsylvania to help with this cleanup. How dedicated! See ninth photo.
  • Wade: He has helped with environmental projects as a volunteer at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. See tenth photo.
  • Wesley: He three years canoeing experience, along with CPR and first aid training.
  • This was a first class group indeed!

    Interestingly, of the 12 in my group, five of us all worked for the same fine company. See the eleventh photo for me and my lean, mean, co-worker volunteers. From left to right in the front are me and Wade F. In the back are Wesley F., Jsun H., and Mark R. I believe two of the folks who don't work for my company were recruited with help from Paul E. of the Appalachian Mountain Club. Two others were folks who just happened to find my website when looking for kayak information. One was the spouse of one of the two. The remaining two were folks with whom I've hiked or kayaked.

    After filling up the boat (twelfth photo), a few of us stayed on to take the trash back. Notice the red bowling ball at the bow of the boat. Those left behind continued to collect more garbage. At Jackson's Landing, three of us unloaded the trash into a pickup (thirteenth photo). Greg estimated it totaled 500 pounds. Mark R. and I then drove out with Jack (a park employee) to put the garbage in a dumpster. Tires went to a separate location. Along the way, Jack showed us an eagle nest just southwest of where the road to the maintenance building intersects Park Entrance Road. See fourteenth photo. We could see the white head of a mature bald eagle sticking out of the nest, keeping an eye out for intruders. Unfortunately, eagles typically fly away when a camera is pulled out...especially if it is mine.

    While waiting for Greg to return, we met a fisherman (fifteenth photo) with several boxes full of perch (sixteenth photo) that he caught via net. Apparently, the Pax isn't hurting for fish...at least not perch. A pole fisherman at the pier agreed.

    Speaking to Stephanie (seventeenth photo), there were times during the day when we thought the wind had died down enough to take out the canoes but after a few minutes, it would pick up again. There were whitecaps on Jug Bay. What's worse is that at times, the west wind actually turned out to be more of a northwest wind which would have made canoeing much more difficult. There is no doubt in my mind that ditching the canoes was the wise decision.

    There were quite a few other volunteers out including members of the Appalachian Mountain Club and some high school honor roll students. Greg L. (the other Greg) took out the high school kids in the park pontoon boat. See eighteenth photo.

    After Greg returned (nineteenth photo) with a second boatful of trash, I headed out in the john boat to pick up the final load along with the rest of my group. We picked up a few tires along the way. One thing we learned is to make sure and get the tires at low tide. We knew they were there because we saw them earlier but we waited too long and when we returned, several were submerged.

    Wade and I transferred our third and final load of trash from the boat to the truck (twentieth photo) then from the truck to the dumpster with Jack. Greg estimated we collected a cumulative 1300 pounds of trash! It may not have been as much as last year but we did it in about half the time. We were done by 1230.

    After turning in our gear, we posed for one final picture. See twenty-first photo. From left to right in the front row are Barry G., Linda B., me, Mark R., and Lucas F. In the middle row is Vince L. In the back row are Wesley F., Patricia Z., Wade F., Jsun H., Joe D., and Margery P.

    Peter somehow sneaked away before I could say goodbye or get him in the group photo. I wanted to invite him out to lunch with us. Maybe I'll see him on the water sometime since he's a kayaker.
    Click thumbnails to enlarge.


    Mark headed out soon after we finished. The rest of us stuck around to see a bald eagle up-close.

    Greg told us that someone was driving down from Pennsylvania to release a bald eagle. This bird was injured (probably hit by a car) then brought in for rehabilitation. She was nursed back to health and was set to be freed at Patuxent River Park a little later. It was an hour before the bird and caretaker arrived but it was a VERY fast hour. Greg has mastered the art of entertaining a group with animated stories of his work as a park naturalist. It is interesting to hear someone talk who loves their job so much.

    Greg told us about the osprey platform out in the middle of the northern section of Jug Bay and how he goes out annually to tag the chicks with bands. He also pointed out an eagle nest on the Anne Arundel County side of the bay, just southeast of our location at the visitor center. Through the park spotting scope, we could see a white head sticking out of the nest.

    While we were waiting, I took some pictures of things at the park. A couple of kayakers who we saw during the cleanup paddled by. See first photo at left for one of them. Spring was in the air and while many flowers were already in bloom, some would be bursting with color in just another day or two (second photo).

    The eagle has landed...I mean arrived. It was carefully brought out of its cage. Greg held the bird in a gloved hand. He showed us the beak (third and fourth photos), similar to the one that bit a hole in the side of his nose. He let us touch the talons and feel the claws (fifth photo). After showing us the impressive wingspan (sixth photo), he told us how these raptors will face into the wind and flap their wings to strengthen the flight muscles that attach to their sternum (seventh photo).

    This was quite the treat. I didn't learn about the eagle release until I was on the boat with Greg that morning. I wonder how many more volunteers I could have recruited if I had known about this.

    Then came the big moment. Greg moved into a clearing and threw the eagle into the air so it could fly off. See eighth photo. We were anticipating it would fly high into the faster wind currents and glide off into the distance. Unfortunately, it just flew for just 50 meters then landed in a nearby tree. We hoped it would continue on but it didn't. Greg said that if it was still there tomorrow, it would be captured and brought back for re-evaluation.

    A wing feather fell off the bird. See ninth photo. It was a full 15.2 inches long!

    I was reminded of my days serving as a volunteer animal care assistant at the Sacramento Science Center where I worked with owls, hawks, a turkey vulture, and briefly with a golden eagle...but never a bald eagle.
    Click thumbnails to enlarge.

    Thank You

    This was by far the smoothest river trash cleanup in which I've participated. I'd like to say I led it but I did not. I just recruited the volunteers and turned them over to the park staff. Greg takes credit for the leadership.

    After our eagle viewing, Jsun, Vince, Wade, Wesley, Joe, and Lucas joined me for a late lunch at
         Pizza Hut
         7623 S. Osborne Road
         Upper Marlboro, Maryland 20772
         Phone: 301-952-1720
    afterwards. We polished off two panormous (really big) pizzas and two orders of breadsticks. It was a megadose of calories but by golly, we earned it.

    Thanks to everyone who turned out for this event. While other people were out spending their warm, sunny Saturday golfing, shopping, or whatever, my team of dedicated volunteers were walking through mud picking up someone else's trash...1300 pounds of it to be exact! That's something for which they should be truly proud.