Donna Meoli, youth group leader at Emmanuel United Methodist Church in Laurel, brought seven teen-agers to the far reaches of Baltimore's harbor yesterday. They didn't come to sightsee or shop, but to help clear the shores of Middle Branch of debris.
The group worked with more than 400 other volunteers who joined the city's first Middle Branch Clean Up, an effort that targeted about 8 miles of shoreline layered with trash.
The teens climbed over rocks, occasionally slipping into the cool water near the Baltimore Rowing Club. They dug into the crevices with gloved hands, uttering an occasion "yuck" or "eww" at the items extracted. They raked glass and plastic from the sand and collected flotsam from the water's surface with large, wire nets.
"It feels really good to help, instead of staying home watching TV or playing on the computer," said Jen Baker, 16.
Businesses, community and environmental groups, as well as 25 inmates from the Maryland Department of Corrections, donated eight hours of a sunny Saturday to the environment. By day's end, they had rid the waterway of 100 tons of debris, including tires, plastic trash cans, a few shopping carts and one washing machine.
"I even found several old pieces of underwear," said Baker. "That beats it all."
Joseph Kolodziejski, head of the city's solid waste bureau, said he could not have asked for a more perfect day.
"Everything went our way," he said. "The winds were right and [the] tide was coming in. The stuff was blowing to the shorelines, and we had hundreds of people to clean up."
For Doug Brown, who works in the city's finance office, the cleanup provided "an incredible opportunity to enjoy a beautiful, natural setting in an urban environment. Where else would anyone rather be on a day like this?"
Dena Owens offered her environmental science students at Carroll Community College in Westminster a chance to swap two time-consuming labs for the cleanup. Six, including 20-year-old Andrew Jones of Manchester, took her up on the offer. They weeded, mulched and replanted a butterfly garden near the shore.
"If people like us don't help, this work won't get done," said Jones. "We are in the field today and making a difference."
Much of the trash washes down the Jones Falls, where the city hopes to soon build a catch basin to halt the flow, Kolodziejski said.
"This trash does not all come from the city," he said. "It comes down the waterways from as far away as Carroll County and Pennsylvania."
Downstream from the rowing club, a group of Harbor Hospital employees cleared storm drains and tackled a sandy stretch at Middle Branch Marina. Within two hours, they had filled 100 trash bags.
"A boater called to us that we had an endless job," said Joe Ziliox, the hospital's director of radiology. "But I am a native Marylander, and I like the idea of cleaning the bay. Our part may be minuscule, but if everybody pitched in like this, we would have a great start."
Kit Valentine, a volunteer with the Friends of Patapsco Valley who joined the hospital workers, said he would be at a similar event at Cooper's Branch in western Baltimore County next month.
Across the waterway at Swann Park, several adult teams played hard at soccer and football. But where the park met the harbor, three crews of inmates spent the morning clearing a 6-inch layer of trash to uncover a sandy beach.
"The tide was going out when we arrived, and it was not a pretty sight," said David Jenkins, educational coordinator for the Division of Corrections, who donned hip boots and waded into the water with a net. "You could watch this stuff coming down from the harbor. This is basically the debris of the fast-food industry."
The inmates lugged a washing machine from the cattails lining the water. Rodnie Lloyd, 21, retrieved assorted clothing, shoes and a wallet with a driver's license.
"This place looked like a trash factory, not a park," said Lloyd, who is in the pre-release program and volunteered for the job. "This was a nice experience for me. It feels good to give back to the community. I would do it again."
Jack Kavanagh, deputy commissioner of corrections, said he would like the city to schedule regular cleanups with inmate labor, much like the highway work the corrections crews do.
Kolodziejski would like to see business and community organizations adopt segments of shoreline, similar to the roadway programs. "We can't do this job alone," he said.
After lunching on free pizza and soda, Meoli's crew from Laurel went right back to work. Most of them formed strong opinions after a day of shoveling waterlogged trash.
"They really should outlaw Styrofoam," Meoli said. "It is amazing how much of it we have picked up. It really makes you think about how we package things. You can actually see that this stuff never breaks down."
Erin Simpler, 15, wondered "if we will even make a dent."
She had only to look farther down the shoreline to clumps of trash and a warped orange traffic cone for an answer.
"That is what it looked like here before we came," Jen Baker said.