Volunteers combed the Deschutes, both from above and below, for annual river cleanup

July 29, 2023
Volunteers combed the Deschutes, both from above and below, for annual river cleanup

The Deschutes River in Bend was teeming with life on Saturday, as hundreds of volunteers, including dozens of scuba divers, pulled up trash and other oddities from the river during the annual community cleanup event.

Around 200 volunteers took time out of their weekends to pull invasive weeds and clean up trash along the banks of the Deschutes while divers, each paired with a paddler, pulled up whatever could be found at the bottom of the river during the 27th annual Deschutes River Cleanup.

Last year, the cleanup collected nearly double the amount of trash typically collected pre-COVID. This year, however, volunteers were pleased by how clean the river is compared to past years.

Kolleen Miller, the event coordinator and education director for the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council, said in addition to the river near Farewell Bend Park, volunteers were dispatched to La Pine State Park, Tumalo State Park and First Street Rapids Park.

“The whole focus is protecting the river but also for us, raising awareness. We want people to really think about how to recreate ethically and with a stewardship ethic in mind,” Miller said. “So, as much as it is about picking up garbage and pulling weeds, we really have a larger public awareness campaign called enjoy, protect, respect.”

Miller said the watershed council encourages people to be mindful with their belongings while on the river, and to use river-safe sunscreen to protect aquatic life such as the red-fin trout that make the river their home. Also, she said, using specifically designated access points when getting in and out of the river is important.

Below the surface, divers with both Deschutes County Search and Rescue, and with Central Oregon Diving, combed the bottom of the river, pulling up all kinds of stuff. Any casual bystanders would have seen their brightly colored tanks and air bubbles gurgling up to the surface.

Kevin Renk and Sean Jones, both dripping in their dive gear, dumped the contents of their mesh dive bags onto the lawn near the shore. Mostly beer bottles, cans, and sunglasses fell and spread out on the grass. The occasional cell phone or credit card stuck out like treasures.

Renk and Jones, who have both served as volunteer rescue divers with search and rescue for 22 years, were both wearing heart shaped glasses they recovered during their dive.

“That’s the smallest ring I’ve ever seen,” Renk said holding up a tiny toe ring.

Jones said he and Renk have participated in the cleanup for at least 15 years and said he’s pulled up things as strange as drug paraphernalia and urns containing human remains.

“If you can think about seeing it on the street, we have probably pulled it up out of the water. If you have seen it, in life, a piece of it has ended up in the water,” Jones said.

Over near an entry point to the river, a group of divers examined their booty as Sarah Clark, one of the owners of Central Oregon Diving, the dive shop in Bend, stood on shore with a clipboard keeping close track of her 14 divers.

Clark said the dive shop has participated in the cleanup since before it was formed in 2005 and that helping keep the river clean is a dive shop tradition.

“You used to find a lot more little bags of money, with change and a few dollars. The divers aren’t getting much of a tip for doing it. One person got 65 cents,” she said laughing while checking her clipboard, “so that wasn’t very much today.”

Sheila and Mike Mawdsley of Bend were paired up on the river as a husband and wife team. While Mike Mawdsley dove, Sheila Mawdsley paddled nearby, helping collect debris. While this was her husband’s third time helping out, this was her first time.

“I use the river a lot and I know people dropped, accidentally. A lot. So, I wanted to be a part of cleaning that up and making this the beautiful river that it is,” Mawdsley said. She pointed to a pair of shorts she found in the water that were tucked in a plastic crate with other findings.

“Somebody was probably embarrassed getting out of the water, I don’t know,” Mawdsley said laughing. “We did not find our frisbee that my dog lost, so that was a bummer. We were hoping to do that. We pretty much figured it was a goner.”

As she spoke, Mike Mawdsley emerged from the river hauling a large wooden pallet behind him, dragging it onto the lawn. He said he found it near the Hayden Homes Amphitheater and that it was trapped under a rock.

“This is the cleanest I’ve ever seen the river doing these dives. The first third of the dive, I didn’t find anything. Which is amazing. That is what it should be, right?” Mike Mawdsley said.

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An aerial view of a body of water.