More than 650 kids from six area schools are combing the banks of the Kenai River this year, hauling everything from tangled fishing lines to large wooden boards up to be thrown away for the annual Kenai River Spring Cleanup.
Now in its third year, the event is put on by the Kenai River Professional Guide Association and the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, in cooperation with Alaska State Parks, the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and the City of Soldotna. KRPGA Event Coordinator Mark Glassmaker came up with the idea when the guide association could no longer take kids fishing in the spring. He said he wanted a way to keep children connected to nature and the river even if they couldn’t fish it.
“It just really kind of mushroomed from there,” Glassmaker said. “The teachers love it, the kids love it.”
By the end of the cleanup’s second day on Friday, the kids had collected roughly 2,800 pounds of trash, Glassmaker said. The tally won’t be final until students from Cook Inlet Academy, who will clean at Moose Range Meadows on Wednesday, and a group of Girl Scouts who are set to clean from Centennial Park on Monday have finished.
The tally for last year was around 3,400 pounds of trash, and during the event’s inaugural year, kids collected around 2,200 pounds.
In all, the river banks will be purged of trash from seven different parks on the central Kenai Peninsula. The school that collects the most pounds of trash gets a fishing rod and reel for each participating student, and each school that participates gets a pizza donation. The kids also get entered into a drawing for a chance to win a large variety of donated prizes.
The cleanup pairs well with the curriculum teachers already introduce them to, said Soldotna City Council member Keith Baxter, who helped coordinate the event in the past and volunteered at Soldotna Creek Park this year. Soldotna Elementary teacher Shaya Straw said the event is a good way to both get the kids outside and teach them how to take care of their surroundings.
“We do a lot of focus on … community stewardship and taking care of our community,” Straw said. “We study habitats and life cycles and talk about how it’s all related.”
Soldotna Elementary fourth grader Dawson Malone helped out for the first time this year. He and his friends collected fishing line, pop bottles, bricks and a wooden board roughly the size of a door during their time at Soldotna Creek Park on Friday.
“It was pretty fun actually,” Malone said. “I got to pick up a lot of trash.”
Malone said he’s learned “quite a lot” about the Kenai River and his environment in general during school.
“My favorite that I’ve learned is that it’s good to keep your earth clean and healthy,” he said.
Soldotna Elementary third grader Simone Watts found hooks and glass in addition to a large rug.
“I really like hanging out with the water,” Watts said of her time at Soldotna Creek Park.
Baxter said event organizers take the kids through a safety lesson before letting them loose on the trash.
He added that it’s not uncommon for large pieces of docks or steps to break off into the river far upstream and end up on the banks on the central peninsula.
Both Baxter and Glassmaker said making sure young people have time to experience and learn about the Kenai River is a huge part of the event.
“We want to make sure that every generation continues this connection to the river, and takes the health of this river seriously. It doesn’t matter who you are, if you go to these schools, chances are that, you know, your family takes pride in this river. It’s surprising as much as everybody knows about the river and talks about the river and has an opinion about the river, not every kid gets to spend time at the river.”
One of the biggest rewards from the event is getting to hand out fishing reels and rods to the winning students, many of whom use them to get out to the water more often, Glassmaker said.
“A lot of these kids have never even been to the river, or even fished before,” he said.