With one foot in summer and the other in the fall, I visited rural West Virginia. Mick Curtis, a family friend and nature enthusiast, joined others in the community in hosting a Birch River cleanup.
The Birch River is around 32 miles long with its headwaters starting at Cowen and flowing to Strange Creek until it meets the Elk River. The area around the river is beautiful with mountain views, wildlife, and peaceful riverside communities. People swim, go tubing, and fish in these waters. Find an excuse to see this river at some point of your life.
Those who lived around the river shores added to the river’s beauty. Avid hunter, fisherman, and sports writer for the “Charleston Gazette” Skip Johnson started this project about 15 years ago as a community project. He published a book on the Birch River, River on the Rocks: The Birch River Story.
The process was simple. Locals cleaned up different sections of the river and every couple years they cleaned it up again. After Skip Johnson died five years ago, the event became known as the Skip Johnson’s Memorial Clean Up. I was lucky enough to experience the first project since Skip’s passing firsthand.
A modest group of about twenty people gathered around 9:30 a.m. Children wore swimsuits with plastic bags in tow to throw away collected trash while their dogs swam about, as though cheerleading us on.
The major trash sought out by the community over the years had been car tires, which I found a strange and specific item to target. But to my surprise, the car tires kept piling up. People constantly emerged from the river carrying more and more tires.
As Mick explained, the surplus of tires in the river is likely because tire owners don’t want to pay a recycling fee. Disposing tires in an eco-friendly way isn’t cheap, so people throw the tires into the river and woods.
The crew found many tires at the bottom of the river, and the river cleanup crew had to dive down to take them out. Mick was not afraid to go deep and get dirty, his entire body layered in a waterproof suit. He looked like a man on a underwater mission.
Tires contain chemicals and oils that pollute soil and water. Their heavy metals like lead can amass over time. Tires also present a fire risk. The smoke clouds are infused with dangerous chemicals to breath. Left alone, tires fill with water, perfect for pests like mosquitos to breed.
The river and its shores had more than tires to collect of course. My personal findings included forgotten inner tubes, a deflated raft, bottles, snack wrappers, and Styrofoam. Things got a little bizarre when I found an animal’s disembodied hoof. It smelled awful. With gloved hands, I picked up the animal part to share with Mick. I felt that I should’ve won something for weirdest or most gross thing found in the river. Who knows how that got there.
Some of the larger objects required teamwork. A group of six people worked together to drag a trashed refrigerator up a hill to get to the cars via a pulley mounted on one of the four-wheelers:
Everyone hauled the trash and tires onto their trucks to dump into a pile for the municipality to collect later. Wanting part of the fun, neighborhood dogs chased the trucks and four-wheelers. After the cleanup, I rode in the back of a truck to Mick’s house. Standing up and holding onto the truck with the fresh mountain air on my face felt like flying.
By late afternoon, everyone gathered at Mick’s house for an after cleaning celebration. After having a swim in the river, the kids played in superhero outfits, crawling under the tables and driving their own small cars around the flatland. A feast of food was served outside: fried chicken, corn, potatoes, and cookies. I could hear folks play games of horseshoe outside while I took a nap. When I woke, Mick and his community were playing live music with drums, guitars, whistles, and tambourines. The children sang along for some, and I sat back and listened until the sky went dark. Perhaps “dark” isn’t true. There were enough stars to make me dizzy.
I had the special opportunity to glance through Skip Johnson’s book on the Birch River. As expected from a man who already wrote for a living, the book seemed well-researched and well-written. He melded the story of the river with American history, telling narratives of both early settlers and geographic tales of the unique waterway.
“No one knew the river like Skip,” Mick told me.
I believed him when I held Skip’s book, though I was also touched by everyone else’s love of the environment they lived in. The Birch River was very lucky to have this community to take care of it, a community where each generation was on the same page. Everyone seemed familiar with each other, like a family gathering but among neighbors. The best part of it all was that despite that closeness, as an outsider I never felt shut out. I felt welcome.
When I asked a group to say in their own words why they cleaned the river, Skip’s nephew, Rob Johnson, said, “It’s a beautiful river and seeing tires at the bottom of it just pisses you off.”
After the cleanup, I thought about all the trash I’ve seen outdoors that I’ve ignored. Maybe next time, I’ll be a little more proactive. This isn’t just betterment for the environment, but for people as well. Acting in accordance with the environment brings people together and makes the individual feel good. Caring for a place and being attached to it seems so wholesome, and it’s becoming a rarity these days with how much we move around. Maybe that lack of attachment stems into the amount of littering in the first place.
When I opened Skip’s book the dedication page read:
river on the rocks
And I just sort of sat back. Skip loved the river, and his friends and neighbors continued to care for the river for him after his death. His dedication page made me think of the dedication to not just the river, but to the community and Skip himself.
For a cleaner environment and happier communities, we need that dedication. For that dedication, we should strive to connect to the outdoors more. Even the word “outside” can make one feel distant from the trees, flowers, and water. This community showed me even just one person, even after death, can make the difference to keep a river clean.
Want to know how to pull a community cleanup like this off? Visit our friends at the Birch River Watershed on Facebook for guidance, or even just to share stories.
According to their Facebook, the folks behind the cleanup were able to remove over 70 tires, a propane tank, a refrigerator, a gas tank, and so much more. This is a great testament of the power of community. Birch River Watershed, thank you for your open arms and photos.
Have you ever done anything like this? Have you ever done a cleanup like this in your community? Let us know in the comments.
Has this story inspired you? We want to hear what you are doing in your communities. Have a good story to share? Let us know and we might talk to you for a future story.