Sometimes I pick up trash along the side of a trail as I hike, tucking the corners of Clif bar wrappers and plastic bottle caps into my pockets. With every piece of wayward plastic, I mentally pat myself on the back; I am a good steward! Then I learn about people like Paul Twedt and Michael Anderson, who pulled more than 5,700 pounds of trash from the upper Mississippi watershed, and I remember that there’s bigger, dirtier work to be done.
Twedt and Anderson are in the midst of what they’ve dubbed the Three Rivers Project, a mission to paddle 1,200 miles of the Mississippi, Minnesota, and Namekagon/St. Croix rivers and pack out every bit of trash they find. So far, they’ve paddled 540 miles over 41 days, and pulled 5,719 pounds of refuse (including a giant teddy bear and a bowling ball) from the waters of the upper Mississippi watershed.
This isn’t Twedt’s first time hauling garbage. He was part of the three-man team behind a decidedly non-ultralight Appalachain Trail hike that involved packing out 1,000 pounds of trash. The trio, Twedt, Seth Orme, and Joe Dehnert, created the Packing it Out initiative before their hike and have continued to do work in that space since. Twedt and Orme hiked the PCT in 2016, packing out nearly 1,000 pounds of trash. All told, the 31-year-old Minnesota native has backpacked 4,850 miles, picking up a total 1,820 pounds of litter along the way.
Seth Orme and friend Abby Taylor are currently in the midst of a 5,000-plus mile bike tour of the United States, with a similar mission to clean up roadways and public spaces along the way. The bikers will be joining forces with Twedt and Anderson for the 600-mile Mississippi portion of the Three Rivers Project, which you can follow at Adventure Stewardship Alliance.
The ultimate goal is to inspire others to do their own cleanup work. These kind of epic long-distance journeys aren’t the only way to do cleanups. You don’t need a spare six months to make a difference—hiking a popular local trail with a trash grabber, a few plastic bags, and some friends is a great place to start. If you happen to be on their routes, both the Adventure Stewardship Alliance and Packing It Out have solicited help from local communities, whether that’s hauling trash at take-out points or helping out with a local cleanup. You can check out their websites to see if you might be able to help out. Nonprofit and community organizations around the country organize cleanups on beaches, parks, and trails regularly as well, so plug into your local conservation and stewardship community.
Twedt’s advice for would-be cleanup crews? “Take action. Do it. Get out there and clean it up, one step and one bag at a time. That is all it really takes,” he says. “Be positive! Positivity inspires others to clean up too. Positive action and ethics are the only way to inspire and motivate others to take action.”
The logistics, Twedt says, aren’t too complicated. He started doing cleanups with zero investment, using old grocery bags (and plenty of caution about what he picked up with his bare hands). Now he uses a $15 trash grabber purchased on Amazon, heavy-duty leather or reusable leather gloves, a digital luggage scale, and plenty of hand sanitizer. On thru hikes, Granite Gear stuff sacks make great reusable trash bags, and heavy-duty plastic trash bags have served him and Anderson well on the river.
“It doesn’t hurt, before you get started, to connect with local organizations and land management offices so they can help with organizing the removal of trash, but we have just figured it out along the way and never had a problem,” says Twedt. “I think the key is making sure that you aren’t just shuffling garbage from one spot to another. Never use a dumpster without permission either. We clean up a place, then take it to a nearby business and tell them what we are doing, at that point we purchase something (food, drink, etc) and ask if they would allow us to put a few things in their dumpster. We have never been turned away yet. Also, strike up a conversation with a day hiker at a trailhead and ask if they’ll take it when they leave, also have had great success with that method. Ultimately, be creative, ask others for help, it empowers others to know they helped to clean up a place, even if all they are doing is taking a few pieces or bags of trash.”
According to Twedt, waterways are a lot dirtier than trails, but paddling trash is easier than packing it out on your back. Comparatively, “cleaning up a river is luxurious and easy,” says Twedt. “You can load up a canoe or boat as full as possible (which amounts to a lot more, we had 652 lbs of garbage in two canoes in one day) and sure it’s tough to paddle, but still possible. Just be conscious of wave and wake conditions and be realistic with personal safety. Rivers are challenging because a lot of garbage (glass and plastic bottles, and styrofoam) get caught up in strainers. It requires much care and risk management to approach a strainer safely so you don’t endanger yourself or your group unnecessarily. That being said, as we gauge our comfort and abilities while managing risk we have gone so far as to get out of our boats on log jams and strainers to get trash out. We approach from the downstream side, then gauge if the logs are stable and will hold us. We use 9 foot solo canoe paddles from Bending Branches to reach most things from inside the boat though.”
Once they’ve finished up the Three Rivers Project, Adventure Stewardship Alliance will set their sights on the public. They hope to be hosting guided stewardship trips centered around cleanups for private parties and corporations as early as next year. A Positive Trace podcast, Minnesota cleanup excursions, and an adventure stewardship ambassador program combatting throw-away culture are all in the works as well.
Twedt sees cleanups as a crucial part of connecting with and understanding what it means to have a stake in public lands, providing “an opportunity to become invested in the place. We live by the mantra to ‘Leave it better,'” says Twedt. “Meaning we intend to leave everything (person, place, or thing) better than we found it. It is the ultimate expression of being a steward and being mindful of the world, people, and creatures around us.”
Photo by Paul Twedt