Litter in the river: From a pregnancy test to poop, surprising finds during the 2019 Yampa River Cleanup
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Three bags full of dog poop, a rotting sleeping bag and a straw in the shape of a phallus were among more than 1,000 pieces of trash volunteers collected during the 2019 Yampa River Cleanup on Saturday.
With about 70 volunteers cleaning approximately 12 miles of the river in Steamboat Springs, Hayden and Craig, this year’s event had a lower turnout than the previous two years, each of which recruited more than 130 volunteers.
Kent Vertrees, one of the event organizers and Friends of the Yampa board president, pointed to a change in schedule for this summer’s cleanup as a possible reason for the drop in attendance.
The annual event — usually held after Fourth of July weekend — came more than a month later this year.
“The river was just way too high (in July)” Vertrees explained.
He added that, since commercial tubing could not begin until July 15, the “tube hatch” had not yet occurred. Vertrees was referring to the time of the summer when visitors and locals alike flock to the river, many with beer cans, cigarettes and other party paraphernalia haphazardly attached to their donut-shaped crafts.
“It is obvious that tubing is the biggest polluter of the river,” Vertrees said.
Floating down the river with friends and family, Vertrees frequently sees people with glass bottles of whiskey and beer, which break into sharp fragments when they fall into the water and smash against rocks.
“How do they not know better?” he said.
By Saturday, the popular Steamboat stretch of the river had accumulated a hefty amount of trash, which volunteers collected in large plastic bags and brought back to Little Toots Park. Members of Friends of the Yampa and city of Steamboat staff tallied each item that came in and compiled a list.
As was the case last year, cigarette butts were the most commonly found litter in and around the water.
John Luchini, a longtime Steamboat resident, said he has not smoked in 35 years. Picking up so many tossed, charred cigarette stumps as he volunteered on Saturday reminded him why he quit.
“I have a newfound dismay for smokers who can’t handle their habit,” he said.
Some of the items volunteers found reflected recent fads in consumer culture. For example, in recent years, Vertrees has noticed more electronic cigarettes, stand-up paddleboard fins and plastic marijuana containers.
The main reason for all the trash, in Vertrees’ opinion, is a lack of understanding among river users.
“Some people don’t spend a lot of time on the river, so they don’t have this ethics of care,” he said.
At Little Toots Park, 4-year-old Saige dropped off a bag filled with a menagerie of litter, such as a broken skateboard and a bike pedal.
“We also found bones,” she said, bursting into an excited smile. “Dinosaur bones.”
It made Vertrees happy to see several children picking up trash alongside their parents. By instilling stewardship at a young age, he hopes she and the other children become lifelong river conservationists.
Near Charlie’s Hole, two of Steamboat’s newest conservationists peered into the cracks of boulders, occasionally pulling out plastic water bottles and smashed cans.
Jeff Steck and his 9-year-old daughter Emma moved to town from Los Angeles a month ago, but they have enjoyed the Yampa River during past years’ visits.
“The Yampa is a special river,” Steck said, pointing to its recreational opportunities and abundance of wildlife.
“I got to see a mink today,” Steck added. “I’ve never seen one before.”
He and Emma amassed an eclectic collection of trash, including a New York Yankees cap, some fishing line and three shoes — none of which created a pair.
For others, the health and cleanliness of the Yampa River has a direct impact on their livelihood. Brian Earhart works as a guide for Bucking Rainbow Outfitters, which offers guided raft trips. He has spent the past three years volunteering for the cleanup.
“When you are rafting on that river for your paycheck, if the river is ugly and dirty, no one is going to want to go in,” Earhart said.
By noon, most of the volunteers had returned to Little Toots Park, dropping their plastic bags full of litter loot in a pile on the grass. Some stuck around to eat pizza and pour a beer from the keg.
The pile of trash grew to resemble a filthy sort of cornucopia. A shopping cart growing algae poked out atop the black bags, still dripping water. A decrepit, red sleeping bag smelled of mildew.
As Vertrees acknowledged, the problem of littering will not go away by next summer — but neither will the team of volunteers dedicated to cleaning the mess.
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