More than 100 gloved volunteers, some in boots and others in waist-high waders, streamed along narrow paths and historic sea walls Saturday in a secluded nook of wetlands just south of Fort McHenry, their eyes scanning for trash or the perfect spot to plant a sapling.
The volunteer cleanup and tree-planting event mostly centered on collecting garbage and removing large pieces of driftwood smothering growth areas for grasses.
But from time to time, a more novel item turned up.
"Here's a tennis ball," said Gail Hoffer, 48, a volunteer from Elkridge, who decided to join the cleanup after getting an email about it from the National Aquarium in Baltimore, where she's a member. She had enjoyed her trip to the area last summer to celebrate the bicentennial of the War of 1812, and was looking for a way to give back, she said.
"I think it's just something we need to do to keep our world a good place to live," Hoffer said. "This is such a beautiful place."
The aquarium took over as steward of the fort's marshes in 1998 and has organized groups of volunteers since. More than 600,000 pieces of trash have been retrieved from the national park's wetlands, said Laura Bankey, the aquarium's conservation director.
At a single event last year, Bankey said, volunteers hauled five tons of garbage out of the marshes, which are home to deer, fox, muskrat and more than 260 species of birds.
"We do get a substantial number who are passionate about this place, so we put them to work," Bankey said under a perfect blue-sky Saturday morning. "It says a lot when you give up a day like this to do something to help."
With such a large crowd Saturday, Bankey said she was hopeful for an above-average haul. The group also planted 80 trees.
Many people in attendance, including 18-year-old Ad'Rianah Barnes of Park Heights, said the cleanup was a great way to enjoy the nice weather while giving something back.
"I think it's awesome because I love nature," said Barnes, a Northwestern High School student who participates in the aquarium's after-school and summer program Aquarium on Wheels, which offers outdoor opportunities, science education and job training.
"I complain, 'My city is this, my city is that,' but to come out and make a difference, it's fun," Barnes said.
Just before the event's 10 a.m. start, volunteers milled about in a grassy area that was once the site of a Civil War-era hospital for wounded soldiers.
Officials with the aquarium, the National Parks Conservation Association and the fort held up clipboards and called out numbers, separating the volunteers into about a dozen groups. They each had distinct duties: planting, shoreline cleanup, or pulling on rubber waders and heading out into the waters to pull garbage from the grasses.
Seniors and kids, college fraternity brothers and sorority sisters, and suburbanites and city dwellers all pitched in.
Among the crowd was Susan Arnett, 30, of Pigtown, a paramedic in Baltimore County who said she'd wanted to come to an event last year but never made it. A gardener, Arnett said she enjoys spending time outdoors and wishes the city's waters were clean enough for recreation activities.
"Eventually I'd like this waterway to be nice," she said, looking off into the blue expanse surrounding the fort.
The event's leaders agree that the waterways are a far cry from what they once were. But fort historian Scott Sheads said the marsh along Fort McHenry is "reminiscent" of what previously buffered shorelines in and around Baltimore, and should be prized as such.
Construction of Fort McHenry, believed to be the first major military fort along the Eastern Seaboard, was authorized by Congress in 1794 and completed in 1805, Sheads said. It played a key role in the War of 1812, when Francis Scott Key was inspired to write "The Star-Spangled Banner" on a truce ship in the Patapsco River during the Battle of Baltimore.
Larger-than-usual crowds have been coming through the fort since the 1812 bicentennial and are expected through 2014, the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Baltimore. Bankey wants to pull the marshlands into the conversation and make more people aware of how important they are.
Carlos Winston, 16, of Pikesville, who is also in Aquarium on Wheels, said the cleanup was indeed an eye-opener.
"We actually get to come out to the field and see what we as human beings cause out here," he said.
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