I really cleaned up on post-Thanksgiving Black Friday this year, literally.
Not in the customary manner — waiting in line two hours to nab a deal on a big-screen TV. No, it was joining fellow Arkansas Canoe Club members for the 11th annual Black Friday Cleanup. Trash Clean Up
How could I miss this year's cleanup with Cowper Chadbourn and his Black Ops Advanced Trash Removal (BOATR) group partnering with Michael and Tonya Sacomani, the king and queen of cleanup on the Saline River (see arkansasonline.com/1212saco). I'm there.
Chadbourn and his volunteers are legends among paddlers of Arkansas' natural streams and waterways. Tales of BOATR cleanup escapades are a recurrent topic of conversation whenever boaters gather. Since 2016, their expeditions have removed more than 147 tons of trash from Arkansas streams. This includes some 5,350 tires, from small doughnut tires still mounted on a rim to tractor tires as tall as the crew members who hauled them out, precariously balanced atop their boats.
But the quantity of the garbage is not what boaters recount about Chadbourn's adventures. It is the innovation and creativity the group employ in collecting their "main target" trash that inspires tales told around boaters' campfires.
A favorite exploit is "The Giant Dumpster Adventure." They recovered a 7-cubic-yard metal dumpster that had washed into the Buffalo River from Tyler Bend State Park during the flood of 2015. Empty, it weighed 975 pounds.
Employing a large, makeshift, floating wooden crane — complete with cataraft tubes and pulleys — they managed to leverage the upside-down dumpster from the river bottom. During subsequent visits, using boards, expanding foam and other materials, they set about repairing the holes in the dumpster and then they floated it to the Gilbert takeout (see arkansasonline.com/1212feat).
There was also the time they mounted a four-wheeler between two flat-bottom boats, then transported it across a waterway to help with the cleanup on an island. Take a moment to construct that image in your mind's eye.
Hot tubs, porta-cans, sofas, mattresses,
bedsprings and floating vessels — of all shapes and sizes — are just a few of the larger pieces of trash the group has retrieved.
A derelict fiberglass powerboat was the main target of the first annual Black Friday Cleanup. While on a leisure float, Chadbourn and Doug Webber spotted the vessel resting on the banks of the Saline River. They put out a call on the Arkansas Canoe Club message board. Nine people showed up on Black Friday to float the abandoned boat downriver. A tradition was born.
The Saline River was also the site of this year's 11th annual cleanup.
Dalene Ketcher and I pulled into the parking lot at Saline River Canoe to be greeted by a cluster of cheerful, colorfully clad volunteers. Among them were Michael and Tonya Sacomani, owners of the boat rental business.
It appeared everyone got the Muck Boot memo because we were all "styling" assorted designs of the footwear. Their ads state, "The boot that can do it all." We put their claim to the test during the mix of muck encountered that day.
By the time Chadbourn gathered the group around to give us our marching orders, there were some 20-plus volunteers assembled on the banks of the Saline. He explained how recent rain had swollen the river from 3 feet deep to more than 8 feet. At these levels, most of the trash normally spotted by boat would today be invisible and underwater.
His revised plan was to send only five boats on the water-accessed cleanup. The remainder of the group would collect refuse at designated locations along the shore. The cleanup's main target would be Saline Crossing Regional Park & Recreation Area.
I chose to join the Crossing cleanup crew. I had read about plans to restore the historic riverfront area and wanted to contribute.
The Sacomanis offered the use of their canoe-rental vans and trailers to haul workers and boats. We loaded, then headed out to our first location: Moore Ford Crossing, a popular boater put-in and gathering place for locals.
Once there, the boat crew unloaded three kayaks and two open boats. The grounds team spread out across the riverbank with garbage bags in hand, collecting cans, bottles, fishing lines, partly melted plastic and other trash scattered around makeshift fire rings. The message "Leave it better than you find it" had clearly not been sent to this address.
Leading the cleanup flotilla, Debbie Doss and Bob Tyler launched into the muddy waters of Alum Fork Saline River. They would rejoin us at the Saline River Canoe takeout after their floating cleanup. The original plan for a 4-mile float had expanded to 9 miles. The higher river levels made for a swifter current, so they could cover more territory. That is, if they didn't get stuck under a low-water bridge.
Chadbourn loaded a couple of volunteers into a flat-bottom boat to cross the stream and clean up an island formed at a divide in the waterway. At the same time, we scoured the riverbank for remnants of what had been, based on the number of beer cans, several fun get-togethers.
Moore Ford Crossing wasn't really in too bad a shape. But we would more than earn our keep on the challenging cleanup ahead.
On the approach to the river at the end of River Street, volunteers climbed out of the van to begin collecting trash along the gravel road. The usual debris lined it: glass beer bottles, beer cans, plastic bags, Styrofoam cups and two field-dressed deer carcasses with their antlers and hindquarters removed. That was a sight I won't soon forget.
We loaded our bulging trash bags on the van's trailer until we reached the regional park area. At that point, we transferred the bags into a 30 yard dumpster provided by Benton Parks and Recreation Department. About 21 feet long, 7 feet wide and 5 feet tall, the container was a lifesaver. We could not have cleaned up the entire area without the dumpster.
I was excited when I heard the main target for the BOATR cleanup was at the Saline Crossing area, and anxious to explore the area in search of remnants of its rich history. The Southwest Trail, also known as Military Road, crossed the river at this place. It was the main route for early travelers en route to Texas and other southwestern settlements. Legendary figures such as Sam Houston, Stephen F. Austin and Davy Crockett crossed at the very spot I was now picking up trash.
Soon the river crossing will be a major thoroughfare again. When the proposed 65-mile Southwest Trail System connecting Little Rock and Hot Springs is complete, bicycles and sneakers will be the mode of transportation.
The bikeway will use the original, 1891 Old River Bridge to cross the river. Currently the iron beams, two large trusses and a wooden platform of the structure have been dismantled. They are being restored to once again be used to span the 260-foot river in service of the bike route.
Saline Crossing Regional Park & Recreation Area Inc. has plans to preserve this historic area and establish a significant public river access for visitors.
As I scrambled through underbrush, broken limbs and downed trees picking up trash, my search for evidence of the once thriving town of Saline Crossing proved unsuccessful. The community that vied in the early 1800s to become the county seat was now just a faded memory.
We filled bag after bag of trash and dragged partly burned box springs and other furniture out of the tangle of honeysuckle vines. The dumpster quickly began filling up. A partially burned trash pile included a photo album of cute children. One of the volunteers set the binder aside in hopes of finding its owners.
After a couple of hours of nonstop trash collecting, we came across the largest heap of trash I had seen thus far. I sighed, thinking we would never have time to clean up this massive mess.
Our team set to work, grabber tools a-clicking and gloved hands a-grabbing. We dug another set of box springs out of the bushes, two mattresses, the remains of a rotted sofa, a toilet, a fire extinguisher, a set of broken dishes, various plastic containers, another deer carcass, an unidentified appliance, assorted melted kitchen chairs and tires of all sizes ... along with many pieces of trash I didn't want to get close enough to identify.
Throughout the day, we loaded our collection on the trailer and hauled it to the dumpster. We didn't collect enough garbage to completely fill the enormous container, but we definitely made a difference. I'm sure future park visitors will appreciate our efforts.
We arrived back at Saline River Canoe headquarters in time to greet our river crew members as they floated into the takeout. Doss had several bags of trash stacked at the front of her canoe. Tyler's canoe was loaded with a couple more bags plus a large plastic storage drum.
Tyler hadn't inspected the container's contents. If it held hazardous waste, he wanted to wait until he returned to the shore so it could be disposed of properly. It was heavy and awkward, but we managed to finesse it out of the boat and onto solid ground.
[Gallery not showing? Click here to see photos: arkansasonline.com/1212better]
The group had a running joke that someone had stuffed a body in the barrel. It was definitely heavy enough.
We rolled the barrel up the riverbank, removed the drain plug and tilted the opening over a plastic pan. Whew, it was just river water. Lifting the end of the barrel, we emptied its contents.
"Hey, Conall, you were right," I heard someone exclaim to Conall Plunkett. "There was a body in the barrel."
Chadbourn held up a small red plastic skeleton that had been inside. Everyone had a good laugh.
With the day's cleanup complete, Michael Sacomani rolled out the grill to cook up brats and burgers. The warm food and adult beverages made for a fine end to a productive day.
We had food, drinks and camaraderie. My reward was believing our efforts might bring a smile to the face of those who visit the Saline Crossing area. Maybe, if they see how welcoming the riverbank is without all the trash, they will become better guardians.
Bob Robinson is the author of "Bicycling Guide to the Mississippi River Trail," "Bicycling Guide to Route 66" and "Bicycling Guide to the Lake Michigan Trail."
Gallery: Canoe Club Cleans Up
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