For two days, the women worked, picking up trash in the weak sunlight and cold winds of November.
They found plastic tampons, syringes, used condoms, fast food cups, straws and cigar tips — so many cigar tips. They found a pacifier, deodorant, a rubber duck, three dead rats, lighters, the remnants of a plastic chair. They don’t know where it all came from. They just couldn’t leave it there, a giant garbage bog on the beach at Whiskey Island.
Inch by inch, they made their way along Lake Erie, using a snow shovel and a rake and a big dustpan to pick the garbage out of the sand and fill 25 trash bags.
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“I’ve just always been a water person. I just love being in it. Seeing it so full of trash just kills me,” said Bessie Young, a kayaker and stand-up paddler from Westlake who goes by the name Songbird.
Sarah J. Buck, a swimmer and stand-up paddler, saw Young’s post about the garbage bog on a paddler Facebook page and volunteered to help.
“Look at the reputation of the Cuyahoga and how much better that is now,” Buck said. “If more of us decide to clean up and do our part, it rubs off on people.”
Both women grew up by the ocean, Young in San Francisco and Buck in New Jersey. When Young moved to Ohio, she kept referring to Lake Erie as an ocean. “I’d never seen a freshwater body this big.”
Paddling on the lake is peaceful, she says, meditative.
“I feel like you have a sense of freedom. You’re just away from everyone. It’s almost like flying,” said Young, who October rescued a baby skunk trapped on what she calls her secret beach.
Buck, too, wanted to be out on the water, but she didn’t want to boat, she said. So she took up stand-up paddleboarding.
That’s why the women were out in the cold for hours, crouched and hunched over the sand, as a few brave boaters hummed by in the harbor.
“My boat is constantly full of garbage I’ve picked up,” says Young. “I can’t go past it without feeling really guilty because it doesn’t belong there.”