By noon yesterday, Margaret B. Martin stood on an all-but-forgotten plot of land under Interstate 95 and surveyed a pile of mud-slicked tires piled on a bank of the Patapsco River's Middle Branch in Southwest Baltimore.
No matter that her arms were sore from a morning of lifting and rolling tires -- or that she was so dirty that even the inside of one ear was splattered with mud. She was 71 tires and one bowling ball closer to achieving her goal: a clean Middle Branch that hikers and bikers along an extended Gwynns Falls Trail can enjoy.
"I know that after every single rain you have everything wash down," she said. "But you just take it one step at a time."
Yesterday, Martin led a platoon of 14 volunteers in six canoes to the inner reaches of the Middle Branch beneath I-95 and its ramps at Interstate 395. They had pulled on boots and waders, braved wind and waves, to pluck 71 tires, a bowling ball and a carpet remnant from the mucky bottom and shore of the Middle Branch.
"There they are, in all their green glory, right underneath the overpasses," said Barbara Taylor-Suit of the volunteers.
"Every time we throw a bottle out a car window, it ends up in places like this," said Taylor-Suit, executive director of the statewide environmental group Save our Streams. "The water reflects the image of how we live."
Martin, 43, began organizing cleanup efforts about five years ago, and to date, she has helped pull 502 tires from the Middle Branch.
She first noticed tires in the water on her then-daily commute across the river on Baltimore's light rail system. She works as an environmental engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, cleaning up hazardous waste sites, and felt she could put her professional skills to work cleaning the river.
"What you want to do is have a clean environment," she said. "I picked the tires because they are, if you will, a tangible entity."
Volunteers pulled most of yesterday's catch from the water, then rolled or carried the tires through puddles and piles of debris to a giant trash bin supplied by the city's Department of Public Works. From there, Martin said, DPW will take the tires to the nearby Baltimore Refuse Energy Systems Co. pyrolysis plant to be recycled.
A member of the nonprofit Gwynns Falls Trail Council, Martin aims to have the area completely clean by the time the trail reaches the Middle Branch -- still at least two years away.
The trail begins in Leakin Park and follows the Gwynns Falls through Gwynns Falls Park in West Baltimore. Ultimately, the plan is to extend the trail to link with the Inner Harbor to the east and the Patapsco Valley greenway to the south.
First, Martin said, she'll get the rest of the tires. Then she'll tackle the hundreds of plastic bottles along the banks. Eventually, she wants to mobilize people to pull invasive phragmites grasses from the shore and plant native grasses instead.
The Middle Branch site is generally seen only by boaters from Baltimore Rowing Club and passengers on the light rail. It is beneath I-95, it is muddy and it smells a bit putrid. Storms have washed litter from the Gwynns Falls watershed downstream, and hundreds of plastic soda bottles and other debris lie piled along the banks.
"It's a dump," said volunteer Larry Mowinckel, 44, of Ellicott City, when he first saw it yesterday. "I can't believe how many bottles are here."
While many observers would see only an industrial wasteland, the volunteers see beauty in a noisy spot under a highway overpass.
"The creatures are there, even though you see all this litter," said Meo Curtis, 41, a planner in Montgomery County's Watershed Management Division whose pants were soaked and lips were blue by the end of the morning.
Curtis, of Laurel, talked about a pair of cormorants and a great blue heron she had seen yesterday. "If we cleaned this up a little, what else could live out here?"
While Martin and her volunteers collected tires, volunteers across the river were planting 100 trees. Shortly after noon, the groups met for a picnic by the river.
"We call this 'plant and paddle,' " said Dave Hollander, 57, a Windsor Hills resident and president of the Gwynns Falls Watershed Association who was out yesterday planting trees.
"Even as downgraded as it is, it has a lot of life in it, the Gwynns Falls estuary," he said. "It's worth working for."