Every three months a group of volunteers meets at the wetlands adjacent to Fort McHenry and re-enacts the same scene. Armed with rakes, shovels, plastic bags and puncture-proof gloves, the volunteers remove trash that clogs this ecosystem. Their next mission will be from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday.
The 7-acre marshy area is covered with grasses and the occasional phragmites. This time of year most of the plant life is brown or yellow, and parts of the field flood at high tide.
"The reason we need to go out there is a lot of debris that washes in from the storm drains," said Angie Ashley, manager of the National Aquarium's Chesapeake Bay Program. "A lot of the trash gets wrapped up in the wetlands; it gets caught up in the vegetation and the plants."
And, when she says "a lot," she means it. On the most recent cleanup in September, volunteers picked up more than 11,000 pieces of trash -- they've found car tires, headless baby dolls, lots of drug paraphernalia and even a refrigerator. She said 98 percent of what they pick up is plastic.
The volunteers -- who typically include church groups, boys and girls clubs and lately a group from an area singles club -- are divided into teams. Usually, between 50 and 100 people participate. Each team has a leader with a first-aid kit, a radio and a biohazard box for the needles that are inevitably found.
The wetlands area was created in 1982 after the construction of the Fort McHenry Tunnel. Federal law says that when the environment is disturbed -- as it was when the tunnel was built -- the damage must be mitigated in some way.
Thus, new wetlands were built. Now the 7-acre site serves as a bird sanctuary -- more than 50 percent of all bird species in Maryland have been spotted there. It has also become a nursery for fish and other aquatic life.
But, its location in the center of an urban area means these wetlands require constant maintenance.
In 1997, the National Aquarium, which helped create the wetlands in the first place, spearheaded a partnership with the National Park Service at Fort McHenry, the state, the Port of Baltimore and other groups. The goal is to maintain the site and use it as an outdoor classroom. "We really hope this is a national model for zoos and aquariums," said Glenn Page, the director of conservation for the National Aquarium.
"It is a nontraditional form of conservation program, but it looks to be the wave of the future."
But, while the immediate environmental work is important, aquarium staff said that educating the public about the effects of litter and garbage is the real point.
"The whole thing is raising awareness; we're teaching -- a lot of people don't realize the Chesapeake is so close," said Ashley. "Everything they do on land affects the bay. It can be the same canned drink that they throw out a car window that goes down a storm drain that they end up picking up in a cleanup. It really drives the message home that what they are doing in their own back yard is affecting the Chesapeake."
And, this sense of connectedness to the bay is what volunteers say they walk away with. "It gives you a different perspective," said Geri Schlenoff, a retired teacher from Towson High School who has participated in about a dozen cleanups. "All of this is trash that is produced by humans. I think people leave with the idea that every little bit matters."
To participate in Saturday's wetlands cleanup, call the National Aquarium at 410-659-4274 to make reservations or e-mail conserve@ aqua.org. There is no charge, but reservations must be made by noon tomorrow. For safety reasons, all volunteers must be 14 years and older. Volunteers are encouraged to wear warm clothes and sturdy footwear and should bring a change of shoes and socks. Bags, gloves and other equipment are issued.