On March 24, 1989, the super tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef -- a charted location in well-traversed Alaskan waters, a known marine hazard -- spilling nearly 11,000 gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. Accounts list wildlife fatalities as high as this: 580,000 sea birds, 5,500 sea otters, 200 harbor seals and 22 orca whales. Fishing families lost their livelihoods, many marriages didn't survive this environmental, financial and community devastation. Think about the long term effects of that last part.
At the time, I was about to graduate from high school thousands of miles away, on the cusp of my own self-centered life, with television images shaping the memory of this thing I never experienced. 6 months later, I would meet my husband. 28 years later, we are bringing our children to this place. Still wild. Still seemingly pristine. But probably a shadow of what it once was. We are not a part of that collective memory. Our experience is in its infancy, this, only our 8th season on these waters.
We have been cleaning beaches for 4 of those seasons. 2 adults, 2 kids (sometimes a few friends), a couple of double kayaks or a dingy, and a roll of contractor-weight trash bags ready for unfurling, snapping and often re-use. We've found everything from rubber gloves to Happy Meal toys, rusted wheels to cargo nets to balloons and syringes, and more exploding styrofoam buried in moss and seaweed than I care to recount.
We've also found dead animals.
We clean up trash because it's there and because we see it. Does it make a difference? Not really. This year was our season to leave much of it behind -- our shore vessels too small to safely transport large objects back to our boat. Our boat too small or too full to safely haul objects back to the Whittier harbor for recycling or disposal.
This area (above) used to be a neatly stacked detritus pile above the high tide line on the east coast of Perry Island (outside of Day Care Bay), but it's a jumble this summer -- animals, weather and perhaps other well-meaning beach goers to blame. Despite the sprawl, much of it is bagged and contained, waiting for pick up...but we don't know who intends to do this work, where the money or man/woman/kid power will come from. We've watched it grow for 3 seasons. We remove what we can, when we can.
At other locations this summer, we've been the ones to haul and stack items above the high tide line. These are hiked-to beaches, reached through bog and mosquito forest, spilling onto rocky shores or weather/tidal conditions too unsafe to land a dingy or kayak -- a description that fits so much of Alaska's 6,640 miles of coastline. We've left bright markers (like that green plastic container), but don't know who to share them with or who will see them.
We tell ourselves we'll go back for retrieval. When it's safe. When there are more of us, or better, less of us on the boat.
We've found human forms. Mythical and unreal.
We've found evidence of celebration. And fragile, intact reasons to celebrate.
I've read that the spilled oil is still there, black sludge just a few inches below the surface on various gravel beaches. Of course it is. It has to be. I haven't dug for it, but sometimes I'm convinced I smell it.
But how do you distinguish one smell when low tide is such a combination of the beautiful and terrible?
30 years from now, this place will have changed again. My children will return, or not, but theirs will be the voice of recollection -- so much louder and insistent than my own. They will describe salmon streams filled with enough wriggling bodies to bump and lift their kayaks, family hikes with so many piles of bear scat and obstacles back to the boat that by the time we return, it takes an hour for the hair on the backs of our necks to settle. They see more animals in one morning out here, than some children see in a year or more. Their earnest childhood conversations are peppered with words like "juvenile," "sign," "habitat," "species," "identification." I was still breast feeding Astrid when we began the first tentative journeys into Prince William Sound. Our children are now 11 and almost 9.
Their perception of abundance moves forward from this point in time. It breaks my heart to know they will recognize a difference some day.
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To view a NOAA timeline chart for post-spill recovering species and habitats, click here.
We aren't alone in this endeavor, here or elsewhere. There are a number of other people all over the world who also clean beaches. I follow some of them on Instagram. They are a mixture of scientists, biologists, wandering gypsy souls and artists:
@kittiekipper -- Ghostnet Goods
@joannaatherton -- UK coastline
@kellyalance -- Central California coast
@balloons_blow -- BalloonsBlow.org
To read more about our family commitment to clean beaches, check out the blog sidebar category
Beach Work, then scroll past this post, which will show up at the top.