The men under siege laughed and swatted at the water spray with their paddles as Larry dunked his gun for a second assault.
Despite appearances, these six men – three in the raft, three in kayaks – are not just any old river rats. They are members of Protect American River Canyon, or PARC, and they are floating the 5.3-mile section of the Middle Fork between the Old Foresthill Road bridge and Oregon Bar to scour the river and its shoreline for trash.
And if it is also a rowdy, adrenaline-filled river run, well, nobody is complaining.
“Is that a tire over there?” asked Tony DeRiggi, PARC board member and coauthor of Insider’s Guide to the American River. “Forward paddle!”
The group in the raft reached the tire lodged among some roots and photographer and PARC member Gary Hughes hauled it up.
Eric Peach, PARC chair and the second coauthor of the American River guidebook, held out his hand.
“Pass it back here Gary, we’ve got room.”
And so the back of the raft became a makeshift floating dumpster for the plastic bags, bottles, and pool inflatables the group continued to find along the river.
“We’ve been doing this all summer,” Peach said. “We’ve already pulled out bags and bags of trash.”
Bad apples, they are not.
Sierra Nevada Cleanup
Though the PARC crew has been unofficially cleaning all summer, there are two official cleanup days: one in the spring and one in the fall.
Saturday, September 16, was the fall cleanup day, not only for the American River network, but for the whole Sierra Nevada region.
Coordinated in part by the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, sections of the American River were among the 66 miles of waterways cleaned in just one day. More than 900 volunteers along the American, Bear, Yuba, and other waterways hauled out six tons of trash, including a washing machine, a prom dress, and an unopened vinyl album of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
“We had over 100 volunteers on the American River,” Peach said. “We took out a ton at most, which is actually a good number. It used to be really high, but our river is getting cleaner.”
Ron Gould of the North Fork American River Alliance agreed. Gould led a 14-volunteer crew cleanup along Mineral Bar out of Colfax, and he noticed the upward trend there, too.
“It’s getting better every year, he said. “It’s nice to only get a couple hundred pounds instead of four or five hundred.”
“And this year we didn’t get any truck tires,” Gould added.
Among the 100-plus volunteers making the river cleaner are Jeanne and Larry Iverson.
“We had a great time cleaning,” said Jeanne, who holds a degree in environmental science. “I’d say 85 to 90 percent was small recyclables.”
Larry spent some of his time wrangling one of the larger items, a six-foot plastic pipe, from the muddy bank.
“I started pulling on it and when it came up I was like, ‘oh my gosh!’”
Large items like Larry’s pipe are not unusual, but according to Jeannie, it is more common for people to throw aside wrappers, plastic bottles, and cigarette butts.
“If you’re going to litter, just throw it on the side of the trail,” she requested. “The garbage on the side of the trail is easy to find.”
End of the ride
For Peach and his PARC buddies, the garbage along the river wasn’t too hard to find, either. It helped having a flotilla of maneuverable garbage collectors, even if they did occasionally stop to shoot water guns.
However, the final segment of the trip from the Pump Station rapids at mile 3.5 to Oregon Bar yielded almost no trash. Whether this was because the section was more remote or because the river really was trending toward total cleanliness was unclear.
“People are expecting beautiful and clean river canyons,” Peach said. “When people see a clean area, they’re less likely to throw out trash.”
Whatever the reason, there was no apparent trash and the class three China Bar Rapids were just ahead. From the back of the boat, and over the roar of the impending rapids, Tony could be heard yelling, “forward paddle!”
Reach reporter Michael Rohm at firstname.lastname@example.org.
CLICK HERE to see original article and photos in the Auburn Journal newspaper
Photo Credit: Gary Hughes