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Nature Watch: Trembath’s annual beach cleanup has grown by leaps and bounds

Sharen Trembath is my favorite beachcomber. She lives within yards of the Lake Erie shore west of Lackawanna. I joined her a few days ago for one of her daily beach walks.

“Watch for the eagles,” she suggested as we approached the shore, but the bird that sailed over us was a turkey vulture. Both species regularly patrol these miles of beach, she told me.

Sharen leads the annual beach cleanup for Lake Erie. Together with over 2,000 volunteers, she manages the Great Lakes Beach Sweep for the New York State shore of the lake east to Lackawanna. Riverkeepers has recently taken over from her the area from there on up the Niagara River. This year’s event will be held from 10 a.m. until noon on Saturday. Newcomers should arrive at Woodlawn Park at 9:45 a.m. for a safety talk. Families are especially welcome.

This will be this event’s 30th year and Sharen has led it since its outset. I asked her how she began and she shared with me her interesting personal history.

“In the 1980s my husband and I noticed an increase in the amount of medical waste along the shoreline. In just one year we picked up 20 dialysis bags. Local authorities claimed that the syringes and peritoneal dialysis bags had been discarded by individual users and they offered no help in removing them from the beach. Working at the time in the urology clinic of a hospital, I knew the dangers posed by this waste, but I also knew that home dialysis patients were more responsible than that.

“On Easter Sunday of 1986 I was walking along the beach with my 13-year-old son, Jim, when we came upon that 20th bag. I was frustrated and furious. Fuming, I kicked the bag into Lake Erie like a deranged football player.

“Jim stopped dead in his tracks and said, ‘Mom, what are you doing?’ I ranted and raved about people being slobs and ended with, ‘Jim, why bother? No one cares.’ He looked at me with tears in those big brown eyes and said simply, ‘But we care.’

“That split second, everything made sense to me: the world, nature, children. I got the connection. I knew people did care and we needed to keep spreading the message. This kid, who rarely spoke to anyone over 16, actually knew the importance of our water. I did it; I caused someone to care. I hugged him as hard as I could and we both traipsed into the lake to retrieve the bag.

“The next day in front of my aghast co-workers, I threw the bag onto the copying machine and made 25 copies. I sent them to everyone from the local Health Department to the FBI. I’ve never been a radical, but I had a mission. I logged the lot numbers and expiration dates and sent them along with the copies. I knew if the government could track down tampered-with aspirin bottles, I could do the same. We never found the culprits but the word must have gotten around for that dumping stopped.

“Within a month I received a call from the Center for Marine Conservation in Washington, D.C. They were starting an International Coastal Cleanup project and wanted representation on Lake Erie. They asked if I would recruit volunteers to clean and log trash that had washed up on a section of the New York State shoreline. Was this my kismet?

“The project has since grown and grown. The International Cleanup has become the largest volunteer environmental project in the world. And my Great Lakes Beach Sweep grew from 95 volunteers that first year to those thousands today.

“When people ask me why I spend countless hours lecturing about the dangers of marine pollution and the ways we can help our Earth, I can truthfully say, ‘Because one child cared.’ ”

There was not much waste of any kind on our walk. In fact, I found the shoreline far different from our earlier hikes. Now Sharen could concentrate on picking up small pieces of pottery that had finally washed ashore from early shipwrecks.

email: insrisg@buffalo.edu