Wilderness Retreat or Garbage Dump?
We could see the debris on the beach from a mile away. Scattered among the driftwood, the blues and greens and whites were a sharp contrast with the grey rock and gravel and the brown and silver logs. Far up the beach past the high tide line, the winter storms had tossed barrel-sized chunks of white polystyrene. We knew it would look this way. We had been through the drill before, but every year it’s hard when we see a wild remote beach covered with trash. The beach was in Driftwood Bay, and my wife and I were there to collect and inventory the debris that had accumulated over the last twelve months.
Driftwood Bay Marine State Park is a dramatic cove gouged out of the east shore of the rugged Cape Resurrection, a mountainous finger of land reaching out into the Gulf of Alaska and home to seabird rookeries and sea lion haulouts. Surrounded by cliffs too steep for anyone but mountain goats, and a popular shelter from the raucous waves of the Gulf, Driftwood is an invitation to linger, to slow the pace and be present. It’s not a place one expects to find garbage of any kind. We headed for the broad beach at the head of the cove littered with the logs that give the bay its name. The mouth of the bay opens on Day Harbor and the Gulf of Alaska. This exposure works with the currents and tides to bring anything floating free in the gulf to beaches like this one.
Every year a group of volunteers from Seward, organized by Resurrection Bay Conservation Alliance (RBCA), venture out on the Gulf of Alaska to collect trash off the beaches. This isn’t trash left by sloppy campers. This is trash from around the globe that comes in on the tide. Most years we fill a truck-sized dumpster full of buoys, nets, shoes, basketballs, plastic buckets, ropes, toys, and beverage bottles that ride the tide in to spoil the beaches of southern Alaska. Madelyn and I usually participate and use our 27-foot Albin cabin cruiser to haul volunteers and trash.
Last May the planned cleanup was canceled because of weather, so a couple of weeks later, Madelyn and I decided to clean the beach at Driftwood Bay on our own. It didn’t take much urging. Several times a year we make the 23-mile trip around Cape Resurrection to this remote anchorage in Day Harbor. All we need is encouraging forecasts on the marine weather report and a cooler of food.
Even though it is a state park, Driftwood Bay is remote and lacks campgrounds or toilets, so we rarely have to share this hideaway with anyone. This day, though, some extra hands would’ve been nice. We set the anchor and enjoyed the silence for a time before we rowed to shore in our nine-foot inflatable armed with green trash bags provided by ALPAR (Alaskans for Litter Prevention and Recycling). Sea lions cavorted just yards away and a seal popped his head up nearby and eyed us suspiciously. With our mission staring us in the face, we walked up the beach and started filling bags. One bag we saved for usable treasures that Madelyn would incorporate into porch hangings and lawn art. Into this bag went floats and buoys, chunks of line, and interesting odds and ends of plastic. The other bags quickly filled with chunks of Styrofoam, detergent bottles, bits of colored plastic, and of course, water bottles. We found a crushed bike helmet, a felt tip marker, twenty fishing floats, and an intact light bulb.
“Doesn’t it just make you hate them,” said Madelyn, “Ninety percent of what we are finding is plastic water bottles. Can’t we recycle these?”
“You bet and we ought to,” I replied, “Anything not in the landfill is a benefit.”
In two hours we covered two hundred yards of beach and filled eight garbage bags with debris. Once more the rustic primal nature of this beach was restored. Walking the loose gravel is always tiring, so we were glad to rest from toting trash and clambering over mounds of driftwood logs and tree stumps. This beach is steep and yet we find trash and logs washed far into the trees, well back from the beach. Here, trash is crushed and buried by the massive cedar, spruce, and cottonwood logs hurled up here by Pacific storms. Standing twenty feet above the level of the saltwater, I was still collecting trash. I can only imagine the height of the waves that crash against this beach and drive their cargo of debris so far inland.
We sat on a log and cataloged our collection as a humpback whale worked its way across the mouth of the bay, alternately showing its lumpy back and geyser-like spout. We could even hear the distinct blow as the beast exhaled. Wildlife is a great distraction to a beach cleaning crew, but a motivation as well, because the debris strewn on Alaska beaches is not just unsightly, but also a hazard to animals big and small. Birds and fish and even bears are drawn to bright plastic pieces that they swallow. These remain in their system and collect there. Many discarded bottles contain or release polluting and toxic substances that poison beaches, sea beds, and water.
The plight of Alaska’s littered beaches got national attention after the 2011 tsunami disaster in Japan. Tons of trash, from house parts to whole boats, rode the currents from Japan to the Gulf of Alaska and landed on the beaches of Southcentral Alaska. While this delivery of debris was dramatic, our beaches have been collecting human garbage since the first orange peel was thrown overboard, and not all of it comes from Asia. It used to be that we found mostly fishing gear, and now we find mostly trash. Many of the beverage bottles we collect are American water bottles with pristine labels, suggesting they were tossed over in the last week by local litterers.
Ocean debris is so ubiquitous that it is used in scientific studies of current and tide. Barges and freighters sometimes lose shipping containers over the side and the contents spill into the briny deep. These items can be tracked from where they went into the water to where they came ashore, allowing scientists to learn more about the movement of ocean waters. During a cleanup on Montague Island a couple of years ago, we found dozens of plastic fly swatters bearing the logos of various NFL teams, evidence of just such a cargo that never made it to its destination.
The continued efforts of organizations like Gulf of Alaska Keeper, ALPAR, and RBCA will help reduce the beach debris, but until people throw less away and take better care of their boat garbage, the battle will continue.
With our Driftwood Bay trash collected and cataloged, we made several trips to the boat with our bounty. Soon, bulging green bags filled our aft cabin and most of the cockpit for the ride back to Seward. As we motored away from the anchorage, we looked back at a beach littered only with driftwood logs, lying like great sea lions on the sun-washed beach. The only debris on the tideline was sticks, kelp, shells, and fish bones waiting to be picked over by the gulls.
Back home, we resisted the urge to use the dumpster at the boat harbor, and loaded the collection bags in the truck instead. Two days later, our grandchildren helped us sort through the bags for recyclables. We were able to send five bags of plastic containers to the recyclers and only two bags went to the landfill. One bag will end up in porch hangings and other art projects.
We returned to Driftwood two weeks later, this time with grandkids along who helped us collect two more bags of garbage. And two weeks after that we did the same, a strong reminder of how much debris is present in our oceans. In fact, while standing on the bow and pulling the anchor before heading home to Seward, I watched a single white detergent bottle riding the flood tide to the beach, pausing along the way to bump against my anchor line.
Dan L Walker, an Alaskan homesteaders’ son, grew up to become a teacher and a writer. He has worked as a chef, innkeeper, merchant seaman, fisherman, and carpenter. Drawn from these varied – and storied – experiences he has published blogs, essays, professional articles, and fiction in magazines, literary journals, and online. Dan has over thirty years in education and was named Teacher of the Year for Alaska in 1999. Today, he works with schools in rural Alaska and shares life on a lake near Seward, Alaska, with his college sweetheart and muse, Madelyn. His first book, Secondhand Summer, is published in paperback by Alaska Northwest Books.