Kayakers battling to clean littered West Virginia streams

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Kayakers battling to clean littered West Virginia streams
Members of the Trash-Your-Kayak Cleanup Crew paddle a scenic West Virginia stream. (Photo courtesy Michelle Martin)

While West Virginia boasts some of the cleanest mountain streams in the U.S., there's work to be done on rivers in formerly industrialized areas of the state where conscientious kayakers are working to remove debris.

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Since its inception in 2016, the Trash-Your-Kayak Cleanup Crew has removed more than 3,000 tires and three-and-a-half tons of trash from state waterways. Its organizers say clean rivers are vital to the state's post-industrial economy.

“West Virginia is prime for kayaking,” says Michelle Martin, who began organizing clean-ups after a paddle on the Coal River with her sister.

“We have people that come from Ohio to kayak with us on a weekend, and if there are tires and trash everywhere, it puts off a bad image.”

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The sisters realized some of the debris they found floating was ideally suited to collecting with kayaks and canoes, so it made sense to enlist the help of the state's growing number of paddlers.

“Because a lot of this, you can only get to by kayak, we wondered how many other people would be willing to pick up a little trash every time they kayaked or canoed,” Martin said.

She created a Facebook group and started placing flyers on car windshields at kayak launches.

The group has now grown to almost 900 members and frequently partners with the Coal River Group, the W.Va. Department of Environmental Protection, and the A. James Manchin Rehabilitation Environmental Action Plan.

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Trash-Your-Kayak organizes one-day river cleanup events, dubbed Tire River Rescues, but encourages other paddlers to work individually.

“We encourage people to do it on their own because we literally have thousands of people kayaking our rivers every weekend,” Martin says.

Kayakers face a deluge of litter on streams where water recreation is becoming increasingly vital. (Photo Members of the Trash-Your-Kayak Cleanup Crew paddle at a launch on a West Virginia stream.
Kayakers face a deluge of litter on streams where water recreation is increasingly vital. (Photo courtesy Michelle Martin)

Thus far, the group has organized clean-ups on the Elk, Coal, Tygart, West Fork, and Guyandotte rivers.

“We go around and try to help other people who are cleaning up, too,” Martin says.

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The crew has partnered with the communities of Danville and Madison, in Boone County, to help clean their rivers, and these towns have created their own cleanup days.

Martin says she particularly enjoys being part of the Trash-Your-Kayak crew because of the relationships she’s built with people who share her passion.

“They make it fun when we’re out doing the cleanup,” she says. “It is hard work and messy, but you’re in the river. You still have fun.

"There are people I’ve met my first year that we still kayak together, and they still come help with cleanup. The camaraderie and the passion of other people inspire more people.”

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Martin and her husband now create art from many pieces of wood and other trash salvaged from the rivers.

“I take them, and I clean them up, and they turn out to be beautiful,” she says. “My husband does metal work, so then we create this metal wood art.”

Volunteers struggle to clear pollution from streams in areas of the state where poverty and industrialism have been unkind.
Volunteers clear pollution in areas where poverty and industrialism have been unkind. (Photo courtesy Michelle Martin)

The Martins travel to festivals to sell many of the items and use the proceeds to buy additional cleanup equipment, such as shovels, anchors, and motorized jon boats.
She also uses that art to get members of the Facebook group involved in cleaning West Virginia’s waterways through contests with prize giveaways.

She’s dubbed these giveaways the ‘Not Our Trash But Our Rivers’ challenge, adopted from a motto shared by members of the group. Martin plans to run another contest in August.

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The Martins have used found objects to make art to help raise funds for the clean-up projects.
The Martins have used found objects to make art to help raise funds for the clean-up projects.

“I encourage people just to take a (plastic) bag and fill it up with trash while you’re on the river and post a picture,” she says.

“They get entered for prizes that are all West Virginia made. So not only do working on contests encourage people individually on their own to do it, but we give away cool West Virginia prizes.”

Martin said she encourages everyone, whether they’re officially part of the group or not, to spend time cleaning up West Virginia’s rivers, lakes, and creeks.

“These are free resources to us, so taking five minutes and picking up some trash is a small price to pay for these wonderful, free resources,” she says.

The Trash-Your-Kayak Cleanup Crew is open to anyone who is tired of seeing trash and tires in West Virginia rivers and those inspired to make a difference.


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The falls of Mash Fork drop over a ledge in Camp Creek State Park.
The falls of Mash Fork drop over a ledge in Camp Creek State Park near Princeton. (Photo courtesy Randall Sanger.)

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