Longtime Oakland resident Hilary Powers proudly revealed the most unusual item she found at the Middle Harbor Shoreline Park during this weekend’s 22nd Annual Creek to Bay Day.
“It’s a fish that got scared away by all the trash and left its exoskeleton behind,” she said with a giggle.
Naturalist Beth Teper peered at what looked like the head of a pink and yellow fish and exclaimed, “It’s actually plastic!”
Early Saturday morning, Teper and her environmental education group, Stepping Out Stepping In, joined Port of Oakland organizers and volunteers like Powers to clean up the shoreline. The event coincided with the California Coastal Commission and Ocean Conservancy’s Coastal Cleanup, the largest volunteer action dedicated to protecting the ocean. This year, communities from Ho Chi Minh City to Munich joined the effort. Last year, 18 million pounds of trash—weighing as much as 60 blue whales—were collected by nearly 800,000 volunteers.
In California, it’s the “state’s largest event of the year,” said California Coastal Commission’s Outreach Manager Eben Schwartz, speaking by phone.
“I’m always very impressed by Oakland,” said Schwartz of the city’s cleanup efforts. During the 2016 cleanup, according to Schwartz, Oakland volunteers picked up 42 percent of the trash cleaned in Alameda County.
This year, Middle Harbor was one of 53 Oakland cleanup sites. That’s the most locations the city has ever had for this event said Jennifer Stern, the city’s environmental program analyst, speaking by phone. “People just want to do something good,” she said.
The promotion for this year’s event was also more extensive than previous years. Stern said they didn’t spend more on marketing, but partnered with the makers of Litterati, a mobile app that identifies and maps litter, and expanded advertisements to BART trains and stations.
Wearing a gray hat decorated with homemade salt marsh harvest mice—a local species—Powers walked along the coast with a piece of driftwood she used to scoop empty chip bags from the water and drop them into her City of Oakland plastic bag. Powers has been to three or four of these cleanups and likes to volunteer because it’s a chance to “get out in the sun, have some exercise, and do something useful for the world.” She said it’s also as close as she can get to a “barn raising” these days—an event at which people help out “because there’s something to do, as opposed to because they expect to get something out of it.”
As Powers worked, she was surrounded by the mayhem of kids on a trash hunt. They threw driftwood at trash, yanked plastic from under the mud and hooted with joy whenever one of them found something interesting.
“Boys totally lose their minds,” said port maritime services coordinator and site coordinator Ramona Dixon, watching as three Troop 6 Piedmont Council Boy Scouts poked and then shrieked at an unusually large black beetle.
Dixon recalled how one of her sons had inadvertently rolled in goose poop during a previous Creek to Bay Day. He screamed and shouted, “Hurry up, get it off me!” she remembered with a laugh. “He wanted me to cut the shirt off him.”
The scouts scoured the coast for unique finds. Three dragged the bottom end of two truck seats from the shore. They all agreed it was weird, and quickly ran back to the coast to find more after dumping the seats near the welcome table.
Nearby, an actor in a green button-down shirt and black headband strummed a scrap of wood like a guitar, singing, “Clean up the USA” to the tune of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.”
He was there for a shoot for the video series If I Were President, which features young girls talking about what they’d do if they led the country. Independent filmmaker Rebecca Grace started this series because she wanted “to help girls see themselves in a new light,” she said speaking by phone. Episode one featured a young girl who wanted racist people to have dinner with the people they were prejudice against.
The episode she was shooting at the cleanup featured President Kemaiya Thompson, age 8, who wanted everybody to join her in cleaning up the planet. Grace came to the site to shoot her “money shot—a crowd of people cheering after the world had been cleaned. Wearing a pink dress, black fur shawl and rain boots, Kemaiya danced to “Clean up the USA” while leading a procession of actors dressed as Secret Service bodyguards, a priest and Bill Clinton.
Meanwhile, across town in the Northgate-Waverly neighborhood, families picked up trash from the storm drains to stop debris from entering the waterways and eventually ending up in the bay.
Among them were the Moons, all eight of them—five daughters, one baby boy, a mom and a dad. Nathan Moon, a lean man with silver aviator glasses and a broad smile, is the founder of Northgate Neighbors, which he describes as a “robust residential advocacy group” and the clean up’s site coordinator at Northgate.
Participating in the cleanup was part of Moon’s larger outreach program to reduce traffic, plant trees and gain more trash-free space for him and his neighbors. Saturday was his first Creek to Bay Day and he was excited to pick up trash and meet new people. His daughters Iris and Tansy managed the welcome booth as their dad asked anyone who passed if they would join them. Bikers, pedestrians and drivers who passed the booth waved.
The start time at Northgate was 10 am, an hour later than most other sites. Moon thought he’d have a better turnout later in the day because Northgate is, as he calls it, the “nightlife neighborhood.” He said that the number of volunteers was smaller than he wanted but “the work is getting done.”
Moon’s neighbors, Michelle and Kane Sweeney, just moved from San Francisco and said they already feel like they are part of a community. They hadn’t participated in the Coastal Cleanup in San Francisco because it was “not as visible,” said Kane Sweeney. “Oakland is much more of a community-driven place,” he said as he picked trash from the curb with a metal trash grabber. Michelle Sweeney said she was surprised that their bags filled up so quickly.
City of Oakland recycling specialist Hilary Near, who stopped at Moon’s site to check in, had been to three other cleanups that morning. She said the volunteers at those locations were similar to Moon, in that they not only used this event to come together with their neighbors, but to inform people about their responsibilities to the environment and the community. Near said she was “reminded why her services matter” with an event like this. “I’m not just a happy face. I’m actually trying to deploy resources accurately,” she said.
As Near watched the Moon family sweeping the storm drains, she said, “We all need to take care of this.”