Whenever there is a long tidal body of water that is closed at the top end, and when moreover the prevailing wind blows toward the closed end of that body, all the floating junk that drifts into the opening begins to collect along the shore. Though the junk may pause near the opening for a spell, the high tide will often refloat it, moving it gradually further up the bay, until the closed off end of the bay is littered with flotsam that can go no further.
Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island, is a perfect example of such a bay, and East Providence, up at the tippy top of the bay, is where most of the flotsam in the bay eventually winds up. When I began working for Clean the Bay in early 2016, it had been four years or so since the shore had been cleaned, and parts of it looked like a colossal game of pick-up sticks had been going on with giant timbers, pilings, and planks. “Heavily Saturated,” is how NOAA—the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, who were good enough to give Clean the Bay a grant for its cleanup—described it.
I myself was at a loss for words when I first began to survey the area in preparation for the cleanup. There was not a hundred yards in that 14-mile shoreline that didn’t have large pieces of wood stuck full of rusty metal rods lying all over the place. And if it wasn’t timbers it was derelict docks, or gray sheets of plywood, or parts of boats that had been wrecked, abandoned, and cast up. In short, it was a staggering prospect.
Still, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and so we began, Kevin, Rob, and I, landing the boat at the nearest convenient beach, dropping the gate, and loading her up. We began with a 13-yard dumpster, but soon found that it was filling in less than three days, and so upgraded to a 26-yard dumpster, that the recycling company set further or closer to our unloading zone depending on mood. There was so much stuff everywhere that all we had to do was find a beach where wind and tide would allow a landing, and there would be several boat-loads to cut and transport. With our three chainsaws, it didn’t take long to reduce a whole heap of decaying timbers into chunks we could easily carry.
Unloading was either a breeze or a chore, depending on how far away the dumpster was and how low the tide. At high tide the boat floated almost level with the dumspter, and we could just chuck pieces over the edge into the can. But at low tide every piece had to be tossed overhead onto the edge of the wharf, then picked up again and taken into the dumpster.
In those early days, we could often get three loads in one day, if we began with stuff we had cut and stacked the previous afternoon. But soon Rob moved on to a different job, and we had plucked all the low-hanging fruit close to the marina, and so Kevin and I had to range further afield for loads. Still, there was no shortage of debris waiting for cleanup, and we maintained a two-load standard for the rest of the season.
As the weeks wore on we ran into some pretty interesting stuff. There were several small fiberglass boats we had to cut up; there was a stray pickup truck topper on a beach with no road access; there was a broken fire hydrant on the shore at the base of a wooded hill. Strangest of all, though, was a homemade catamaran, made of plastic barrels, chicken wire, plastic mesh, styrofoam, and cement. It was washed up, all cracked and sideways , on a remote poison ivy-laced shore in the Seekonk River. It was almost as baffling to remove as the two barges on the Green Jacket Shoal that we were also chipping away at during that time. In the end we removed it like everything else: cutting what we could, beating it apart with sledges, tugging at it with the crane and hacking with the circular cutter.
I kept thinking we’d eventually run out of debris, but as October finally gave way to November and it became too cold to work near the water, there was still more to go. So here we are again this year, just about to fill the 30th dumpster (we’re using the big 30-yard ones now), and with well over 100 tons moved since the project began. We’re finally about out of stuff to pick up, and we’re about out of grant to pick it up with—so I guess someone planned things just about right. There’s something immensely satisfying about trolling our now-familiar 14-mile coastline and knowing there’s nary a timber left to cut up, not a dock or a wreck that needs tidying. I only hope we get a chance to do it somewhere else—after all, there’s over 300 miles more of coastline to go.