Story last updated at 8:33 PM on Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Bagging marine debris

Homer volunteers spend 10 days cleaning up Gore Point beaches


In the rain forest of the Gore Point peninsula isthmus, olive-green moss covers spruce trees, turning them into a topiary garden. Lupines, irises and chocolate lilies bloom in a meadow hiding prehistoric house pits.

  Photo by Michael Armstrong
Bree Murphy, project coordinator for the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies, carries a bag of marine debris from the beach to a cache pile during the Gore Point clean-up.  
As you walk along a twisting path from the calmer west beach at the Port Dick side to the roaring surf facing the Gulf of Alaska on the east side, bright orange and blue colors perhaps flowers? appear among black sand on the forest floor. White fluff dusts thick devil's club. Turn a corner on the path near the east beach, and the "flowers" grow thicker. You soon realize the spots of color come not from nature, but from humans.

Black rubber fenders the size of VW Beetles wrap around 100-foot tall trees. Floats and buoys the size of golf balls) and larger lie among the logs. Four-eyed, 8-inch high-seas driftnet buoys fill the valleys between downed trees. Bottles with writing in languages from German to Korean testify to the international legacy of thousands of pounds of marine debris that have washed up at Gore Point.

And everywhere, animals have shredded trunk-size Styrofoam slabs into what Gulf of Alaska Keeper co-director Ted Raynor calls a "bear-induced Styrofoam nightmare" dime-size pieces dragged under young trees.

Welcome to Gore Point.

"If any place is mystical and magical, this is the place," Raynor said. "It doesn't deserve to be buried in garbage."

Earlier this month, I went with two other Homer volunteers to the southern end of Kachemak Bay Wilderness State Park, a seven-hour, 75-mile boat ride from Homer down Cook Inlet, past Nanwalek, through the Chugach Passage and around the southernmost point of the Kenai Peninsula to the peninsula reaching out into the Gulf of Alaska like a lacrosse basket.

Bree Murphy, project coordinator for the Center of Alaskan Coastal Studies, Marlaina Thiel, a supervisor with the PRIDE Program at South Peninsula Behavioral Services, and I took 10 days off from our jobs and lives to help the Gulf of Alaska Keeper clean up tons of debris.

Since 2005, Gulf of Alaska Keeper, or GoAK not affiliated with Cook InletKeeper or other Keeper organizations has been cleaning up beaches in Prince William Sound, mostly under federal grants through the Marine Conservation Alliance. The group that eventually formed GoAK started with volunteer efforts in 2001, and became a formal nonprofit organization in 2005. In 2006, GoAK paid workers and volunteers cleaned 350 miles of beaches in the Knight Island archipelago, hauling away 46 Dumpster containers of trash. Work continued in 2007 on Knight Island and Naked Island in Prince William Sound.

  Photo by Michael Armstrong
Floats, buckets and barrels roped together show the extent of large marine debris collected this month at Gore Point.  
This year, after surveying debris-filled beaches at Montague Island and Gore Point, GoAK got $115,000 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to clean up Gore Point a beach with relatively less debris than Montague Iland. REI kicked in $10,000, and the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies provided a $500 grant.

Gov. Sarah Palin vetoed a $150,000 state appropriation. In a list of her vetoes, Palin explained her veto of the cleanup as "not a state responsibility." Sharon Leighow, the governor's deputy press secretary, said Palin thought the program had merit and would support it if included in a future Alaska State Parks budget.

"She found the photos of the cleanup work very compelling," Leighow said. "It just came down to making the tough choices."

In one sense, Palin is right: the marine debris that washes up on Gore Point isn't only Alaskan. A few buoys from Alaska fisheries were found, and some trash like plastic water bottles came from shoreline recreation. Buckets, nets, drums and fishing gear came from international fisheries. Sandals, shoes and toys including the mythical First Years Floatees ducks from container spills have washed up at Gore Point.

Gore Point's marine debris comes from what Curtis Ebbesmeyer the Seattle oceanographer famous for tracking marine debris calls "the eastern garbage patch," a gyre about the size of Texas that collects flotsam and jetsam from the North Pacific Ocean. In an article in the November 2003 Natural History, Charles Moore estimated that patch had 3 million tons of debris.

After we arrived July 7, Chris Pallister, GoAK co-director, gave us a tour of the isthmus. Pallister and his three sons, Eric, Kyler and Ryan, and Doug Leiser and his sons Nick and Brian had been working with Raynor since July 1. They had already cleaned up trash on the west beach, piling up about 30 bags and a string of buoys near the wreck of the F/V Ranger, owned by Robert Cousins, whose has a collection of old boats on the Homer Spit.

As we walked through the forest about 1,000 feet over to the east beach, the scale of trash was intimidating. One photograph couldn't show it all. Take a photo of a 10-yard long pile, walk on a bit, and there would be another 10-yard field of trash tangled in vegetation. Debris stretched out of focus in every shot I took.

"My idea of going out there was to see more of Alaska's coastline," Thiel said. "What I found was Alaska's worst kept secret."

It's a secret known to fishermen and seen before during the Exxon Valdez oil spill. In 1989, oil slimed the beach, killing hundreds of murres, scoters and other sea birds. Cleaning up marine debris was a lesser concern one former Homer News reporter Tom Kizzia still noted in a May 11, 1989, article.

"The mossy forest floor was thickly littered with Styrofoam fishing buoys and plastic bottles thrown across the beach in storms," Kizzia wrote. "Surf pounded the beach, pushing 6-inch-thick piles of golden goo up the sand."

While the pounding surf long ago buried or washed away oil, that storm-tossed debris either replenished by new storms or never cleaned up remained.

  Photo by Michael Armstrong
Bree Murhpy, left, and Marlaina Thiel, right, lift logs on the Gore Point east beach to get at marine debris buried in the thick piles of driftwood.  
Our first day on the beach, Murphy, Thiel and I did what could best be called mining for debris. Driftwood jackstraws piled up on the beach in hills and valleys. It was easy to pick up bright orange buoys resting on logs, but for the rest we climbed down into the logs. To remove a crumpled bucket we had to delicately pull out a puzzle of logs.

Sunny days turned to rain, and rather than risk slipping on wet logs, we moved into the forest.

Ebbesmeyer, the Seattle oceanographer famous for tracking marine debris, says that every piece of flotsam tells a story. Who used that Holland America shampoo bottle? Where did that Alaska Axe deodorant spray can come from? How did a 9-pin vacuum tube make it from the Voshod plant in Kaluga, Russia, to Gore Point? Finding strange objects relieved our boredom. We'd hoped to find beautiful Japanese glass floats and I did find one, buried under a log but more interesting were the peculiar treasures, like an intact little light bulb Thiel found that made her wonder about its journey.

"It made it up under the beach, it made it up under this log under a handful of Styrofoam," she said. "It looked like you might be able to screw it into an outlet and it would still light."

Those kind of stories drew other writers. Charles Wohlforth, a freelance writer working on an Alaska Magazine story about marine debris, flew out for a day with his managing editor, Tim Woody. From New York, Donovan Hohn also visited.

Hohn wrote an article for the January Harper's Magazine, "Moby-Duck, or The Synthetic Wilderness of Childhood," about the First Years toys Ebbesmeyer has been tracking. Packaged sets of four toys a duck, a frog, a beaver and a turtle spilled into the North Pacific in January 1990. They've become legendary since first being written about in the Sitka Sentinel in late 1992. Hohn is writing a book for Bloomsbury USA to expand his article in Harper's. Among other things, he's visiting places in the world where the First Years toys have washed up.

Fortunately for Hohn, Brian Leiser found a faded yellow duck a few days before Hohn's visit, and Hohn later found a cracked beige beaver.

As I picked up debris, I thought of one of my mother's sayings: "Inch by inch, life's a cinch," she said. "Yard by yard, life is hard."

Looking at those bear-induced Styrofoam nightmares spreading over the forest floor, I didn't think we'd clean it all up. But by July 14, the entire outside beach had been cleaned to the smallest shred of plastic, and we'd cleaned most of the forest. On our last day, we took a boat over to the North Beach and collected maybe 40 bags of trash.

"The mess was so overwhelming," Thiel said. "The beach got so clean, though. To see it without all that stuff out there that was really cool."

Pallister estimated the crew collected about 1,500 bags of trash, or 42,000 pounds of debris. By comparison, for last year's Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies annual CoastWalk cleanup, volunteers picked up 75 bags and 827 pounds of debris on 33 miles of Kachemak Bay beaches part of the 7 million pounds collected during International Coastal Cleanup in 68 countries.

The vetoed state funds were to pay for getting the trash off the beach. With most of the trash on the east side of the isthmus, it would take an army of sherpas to carry it to the better anchorage on the west side. Pallister said he's trying to get grants for about $63,000 to sling the trash by helicopter across the isthmus and then have a landing craft haul it back to Homer.

  Photo by Michael Armstrong
Bree Murphy, project coordinator for the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies, stands by a pile of bagged marine debris collected the first week of the Gore Point clean-up.  
Digging into plastic decades old, picking up Styrofoam that disintegrates into tiny beads but never goes away, gave me a new perspective on civilization's effect on the environment. Just as the Exxon Valdez oil found a wilderness shore to foul, so millions of tons of debris floating in vast garbage patches hits otherwise pristine beaches.

"What I thought about a lot out there was consumption, our consumption of just stuff and its effect on your environment," Thiel said. "How could you not come away and think, goodness sakes, isn't there some other way we could do this?"

Raynor was more direct.

  Photo by Michael Armstrong
Marine debris lies in the forest behind the beach at Gore Point.  
"The international community ought to hang its head in shame," he said of the tons of debris. "I just grab a bag and pick it up."

Michael Armstrong can be reached at For more information on Gulf of Alaska Keeper and its programs, visit