By Jenny Neyman
Snow may be a long way off this time of year, but the Kenai Central High School ski team is still focused on what’s covering the ground. In July at the Kenai beach during the personal-use dip-net fishery, that’s trash. Lots of it. Of all shapes and sizes — bottles, cans and food wrappers, lost or discarded clothes and shoes, fishing and camping gear, the occasional tire or dirty diaper, and fish heads — hundreds upon thousands of bodiless, eyeless, decomposing, sand-encrusted, seagull-picked-over fish heads.
And it all needs to be cleaned up. That’s where the ski team comes in.
“All the trash people end up leaving will get blown around or what not. We help pick it up because the dip-netters, I don’t think that they understand the kind of impact they have on the beach,” said D’Anna Gibson, KCHS ski coach. “For me, I’ve been a dip-netter in the past. I have a better appreciation for what goes into the city cleaning this place up. It’s like, ‘Oh, wow.’ All those fish heads, if they don’t get washed out with the tide, we have to pick them up — and the guts and trash.”
For three summers now, KCHS skiers, coaches and conscripted family members have patrolled the parking lots, access road, sand dunes and shoreline of the north bank of the mouth of the Kenai River two to three times a week during the dip-net fishery. It’s a fundraiser originally arranged as a civics project by now-graduated KCHS skier Trent Semmens. The city of Kenai directs the skiers where and when to clean, supplies them with bags and gloves and compensates them for their efforts. The team, in turn, picks up what others leave behind, as well as a new perspective on the importance of litter prevention.
“It’s just so good for the kids to give back to the community,” Gibson said. “They get compensated, but it’s good for them to see what will happen if you don’t pick up your trash.”
What happens is it sits there until someone else cleans it up, in the meantime creating an eyesore as well as an ecological threat to the sensitive river mouth area.
Department of Environmental Conservation water-quality testing at the north Kenai River mouth beach from July 8 to 11 shows elevated levels of enterococci bacteria, which, at high levels, can cause stomachaches, diarrhea or ear, eye and skin infections.
The bacteria are found in the feces of warm-blooded animals, including birds, seals and humans. DEC hasn’t named a source of the contamination, and at this point is suggesting precautions to avoid getting sick — avoid swimming in or drinking the water, rinse after contact with the water, and cook all fish to a minimum of 145 degrees. But people may be to blame, with thousands of dip-netters swarming the shore as sockeye salmon surge into the river. Supported by parking fees, the city of Kenai has pumped an ever-increasing amount of funding into managing and facilitating the fishery over the years, including providing trash receptacles and portable restrooms to control waste.
New last year were tubs for fish waste and trash barrels placed at regular intervals along the beach.
“From my perspective it gets a little better every year. I have noticed a difference this year as opposed to last year and the year before,” Gibson said. “The city works wonders, supplying garbage cans and totes for fish heads. It’s kind of catching on and people are better. (The city) makes leaps and bounds in what works and what doesn’t work.”
But providing and improving access to facilities doesn’t necessarily mean everyone uses them. If they did, the ski team would no longer dedicate 20-plus hours of July to lugging garbage bags and picking fish bits out of the sand.
“The fish heads — that’s kind of a never-ending process,” Gibson said. “The fish-related stuff, to me, is a natural thing. It smells really bad, but it’s the human trash that’s the worst. Like a dirty diaper. I think that’s the worst that I’ve picked up off the beach.”
A deck of cards is the oddest thing skier Chelsea Springer has found. A popped football full of seawater topped the list of oddities for her brother, Alex Springer. Olivia Fair said she hasn’t found anything at the beach so far that beats the oddity she found during a highway trash cleanup for her track team — an edible bra.
Eve Ferguson plucked a plastic green drinking goblet out of the sand Friday. And there was recurring discussion over a beat-up pair of sandy, water-logged canvass shoes, as several skiers passing by stopped to ponder the line between garbage and still-usable dip-net attire.
“I don’t know, they’re, like, completely trashed,” Alex Ferguson said, calling his sister over for a second opinion. “Do you think somebody still wants these? Should I throw them away?”
A child’s rubber boot about 30 feet away was an easier decision. Probably lost, rather than discarded, the skiers figured. They poured out the sand and set it upright so it’d be easier for the owner, or owner’s parents, to find.
While there is the occasional run-in with the gross and random, mostly what’s notable is the quantity, not quality, of trash found at the beach — enough to fill multiple bags and cans and buckets several times a week, and veritable mountains of fish heads.
“We haven’t even moved 10 feet from the white thing and I have to go back already,” said skier Eve Ferguson, lugging a bucket full of collected fish waste back to the tote she had just emptied the bucket into a few minutes before.
It’s enough to wind up a little appalled at the state of civilization on the beach.
“It’s amazing the human race and how messy they can be. Somebody has a fire and burns their garbage and just buries it in sand, then we have to dig it up and clean it out. It just doesn’t decompose in the sand,” Gibson said. “By time we’re done we’re pretty shocked with the human race. But you have to keep that in perspective, too. Maybe some of it’s accidental. If I’m out somewhere and my trash blows away I feel bad, so I don’t know how much of that is going on.”
People seem to be generally appreciative of the team’s efforts, Gibson said, and the amount of trash has been lessening a little bit each year.
“I’m trying to be positive about it,” Gibson said. “A lot of people down on the beach say, ‘Thank you so much for cleaning the beach.’ We really appreciate it. It redeems the human race for us. Or when they see us picking up trash, a lot of times people pitch in and go, ‘Oh, maybe we should help, too.’”
A little blond girl, Mackenzie Ellibee, of Palmer, was sent by her mother to bring Olivia Fair a piece of
trash as she was passing by, dragging her black garbage bag through the sand. A little farther up the beach, 7-year-old Isabella Dammeyer ran up to Alex Springer to add some trash to her sack.
Dammeyer’s grandmother, Maria Meador, of San Diego, said she thinks it’s great that the ski team is helping keep the beach clean.
“Oh, yes, it’s really helped,” Meador said of the trash pickup. She and her husband come to visit their daughter in Soldotna in the summer and for the last two years have helped keep an eye on their grandkids while their daughter dip nets.
“We were just looking for the trash and didn’t see any. They (the ski team) came by just when we needed them,” Meador said.
For KCHS, the beach cleanup fundraiser came just when the ski team needed it. It is providing enough
money for a new wax shack, is paying for new waxing supplies and travel costs during the ski season, and is helping purchase used gear so new skiers can try out the sport without having to spend $500 or more to get all the necessary equipment.
“This fundraiser is huge for our team. It makes our year much more comfortable,” Gibson said. “Without it we would be hurting. We just feel very thankful that we have this opportunity and we’ll do anything to keep it. We cannot say thank you enough for the city for allowing us to do it.”