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The Gateway Information Center

"Today is Trash Day in the San Gabriel River!" I thought to myself as I swam toward consciousness and reality after a night of half-remembered (though very bizarre) dreams. Today's reality would be hard, hot, sweaty but rewarding work, volunteering in the Angeles National Forest to collect, bag, and haul garbage along the East Fork.

Ben came by in his pickup truck to collect me and together we headed toward the Gateway Information Center located across from Mile Post 17 at the foot of the mountains along Highway 39. There we waited for the rest of the effort to show up while we examined the latest status report on the Station Fire which was around 93% contained / controlled, with a as-yet-uncontrolled burn taking place toward the South East and another smaller fire line to the North East.

What a mess, the overall picture looked to be something around 27% or 30% of the entire Angeles National Forest that had burned with green spots here and there that had been saved either through sheer luck else through unbelievably difficult ground and air work. Structures lost, people dead, many more injured, and a loss of recreation area that functions as a stress relief valve for the 22 million people who live in Southern California.

Names and photographs of the dead fire fighters were posted in the Center along with background information on what their lives had been like. I considered their photographs a while, thinking about how they were trained in fire fighting and trained to take their personal safety and the safety of their colleagues as their number one priority. They and their colleagues knew the risks and knew the rewards, and the two fallen fire fighters as well as their surviving colleagues got on with the job anyway.

I set their photographs back down on the counter thinking that there's something heroic dieing on the fire line trying to salvage what's left, killed through the hapless throw of Nature's dice, coming to the end of doing what they did through no fault of their own. They will be added to the object lesson for future fire fighters.

Eventually everyone who was going to go today showed up and then we all packed up and got escorted through the safety barricades in to the closed forest and up in to the canyons above.

Driving through the Morris Fire burn-over Ben saw three deer standing in the ash looking somewhat bewildered. They watched us pass along the highway down below, us volunteers getting a good look at the burn for the first time. There were safety railings that were destroyed or damaged, and there was wide sections of hillside burned which should cause problems once the rains come (if they ever do.) Caltrans will have their hands full once the mudslides start.

Volunteer start litter removal

The USFS personnel, fire fighters, police escort, and volunteers all turned right on to East Fork Road and from there in to the Oaks area along the river where we parked and started getting our stuff together for the day's effort.

Safety is always the first and overriding priority when it comes to working in the forest, so we all gathered around to get a detailed run-through of the safety hazards expected in the region together with descriptions of their mitigation while we worked. Because there are things that cut and puncture out there, latex bio-hazard gloves were available, and heavy work gloves were mandatory.

Water and the need to stay hydrated was a major focus for the day due to the heat and the lack of shade for most of what we would be doing. After everyone was told what the goals of the day were and what the safety protocols were, we split in to three groups to tackle the major clean-up effort that was to start today, an effort that would be on-going for an entire grueling week or more.

I and five other volunteers took the down-river side of the effort in the third group, leaving the more difficult effort up-river to the other two groups which contained the much younger USFS employees, fire fighters, horses, and mules.

The box of latex gloves I eventually found were resting on its side on the hood of a vehicle, a wide gap across the front spilling glove fingers like busted intestines. I grabbed a couple, shoved them on my hands, shoved gloves on top of that, and then shouldered my pack.

Stepping in to the river basin from the road is an exercise in restraint and, well, something of a misery -- at least for me. The litter is everywhere and the urge is to spend the effort picking up every little piece of trash as you see it. Walking past all the litter without picking it up was a shame but we were there to mostly focus upon the piles of garbage heaped up along the river banks, the trash bags hung in trees, all the major lumps of garbage, addressing the endless strewn litter once all the major piles were bagged and hauled.

If you have never been on such a garbage collecting and hauling project, you may not be able to fully appreciate the filth that can accumulate when humans live illegally along a river and it is too dangerous to send people in to try to get some of it cleaned up.

With the forest closed we had an opportunity to safely go in there and clean yet as I looked at things, it seemed to me that while a single week of dedicated effort would make the river safe and useable for families once again, several months of additional effort will be needed to get everything cleaned out. To restore the ecology of the area also means breaking apart the endless illegal rock dams across the river and filling in holes, work that may take a year or more, it seems to me.

One of the many trash heaps

We carefully collected and bagged thousands of pounds of filth. Used baby diapers by the dozens, used toilet paper dropped on the ground all up and down the far side of the canyon, some of the toilet paper placed under rocks, most of it simply thrown in to bushes. Trash heaps that contained garbage accumulated over the years some times took half an hour to pick up. Shoes by the dozens, plastic foam eating plates by the hundreds, plastic forks, discarded children's clothing, men's underwear, used condoms, unused condoms, drink boxes, food wrappers, candy wrappers, plastic shopping bags, but by far greater numbers there was garbage in unidentifiable heaps one didn't want to take a close look at anyway.

I've seen bad. This was worse.

We ran out of bags and yelled across the river to Trailbuilder volunteer Victor to ask that he head back to the staging area to acquire some more. (Thanks, Victor!)

Much of the garbage was bagged and then hauled up to the road by hand, dragging the heavy bags through the river basin, across the river, dragging the heavy bags up the steep embankment to where the bags could be placed on the road for later collection. Still more bags were collected along the river at points where the High Country Riders horse and mule volunteers could clip-clop in and have the bags strapped to their broad backs for hauling up to the road.

It's always a special treat having horses and mules on these kinds of efforts. They lend a rustic sense of adventure that adds spice to the feeling of accomplishment at the end of the day, and I was happy to rub noses with all four of them, kind of sorry that it didn't occur to me to bring a carrot for each volunteer. Next time!

Eventually lunch time break was called and people climbed out of the river basin and back up to the road, looking for shade. I drank three more containers of Gatorade and had some salted nuts, then sat back against a rock wall to see what came next. After the break, what came next was basically more of the same.

I found a really neat crack-pipe which I tried to affix to the police officer's car antenna in the hopes he would drive all the way back to his Station with it up there, not noticing it until too late. Alas nothing I could think of worked so I finally just set it on the hood of the vehicle. An old and broken, rusted, unusable pellet gun rifle was extracted from a trash heap and added to the hood of the car later and I couldn't help but flash back to my younger hippie days to the times when cops and I had been a lot more vocal in our opposing viewpoints of various social issues (tear gas: it's good for the sinuses!)

High Country Riders lend a hoof

In the afternoon, the heat continued to climb and the effort of hauling the bagged garbage became more difficult, requiring frequent dunks in the river. As I stood in the river trying to cool off, Ben called down and pointed toward some cottontails growing on the bank.

As I walked toward the crop of cottontails, my feet started to sink in to the mud, and by the time I had sunk down about a foot, a hot breeze whipped up a whirlwind of leaves and dust on the far bank, a spiraling Brahms' Waltz in A-Flat Major ran through my head until it was quickly drowned out by the melodic screaming of Aerosmith. When I looked down again, I was under by about eighteen inches and still sinking fast, prompting a hasty retreat from the sucking mud.

Had it been cool or outright cold, we could have collected and hauled much more garbage but the direct Sunlight was getting felt and eventually the Trailbuilders hauled out the last of our bags and showed the High Country Riders where our bagged garbage staging places were and then we brought our part of the effort to an end.

So the effort continues without me now that I'm back down the mountain. Considering the amount of trash that still needs to be collected, bagged, and hauled by the USFS people and the fire fighters up there, I wish them well. The week to come is going to be even hotter than it was yesterday and while it's fun exercise for me as a volunteer to participate in such an effort on occasion, I can't imagine being asked to do this for an entire week.

This is stuff that the USFS does every day in heavily-used areas where it is safe for their people to come in and do this kind of work. Because the forest is closed, we were afforded the opportunity to safely come in to this area and try to get the section of river cleaned up to where actual families can once again walk down and enjoy the water during the hot Summer months without the horrible filth and garbage.

The clean-up effort will continue, as will the effort to keep the problem from getting out of hand again. Eventually -- with the USFS and with further volunteer efforts -- this section of the San Gabriel River will be won back by the average American citizen and for the Average American citizen, all of whom can enjoy the river in safety and in health once again.

All of us 360 million Americans own this land out here, not just a few who would turn our lands in to sewers. Please, all the gods there are and the Powers That Be back in Washington, let not this effort be wasted and let's let all Americans have their river back once and for always.

* Collecting at the Gateway Information Center, Mile Post 17, Highway 39
* The bronze children playing on a downed tree
* A look generally North just before heading up the canyon
* East Fork, the High Country Riders get their volunteers ready
* We have a detailed safety and Job Hazard review
* Victor starts. Trash heaps and litter need to be collected and bagged
* The section of the river the group I'm with will be cleaning up
* The larger trash heaps get bundled and hauled up to the road
* People who think they can "stake claims" have their garbage hauled out
* Volunteers stuffing bag after bag of heaped and scattered garbage
* A really neat skull crack pipe tagged and bagged
* One of the trash heaps in our volunteer area
* Trash gets hung on trees and on posts for some bizarre reason
* Another trash heap. I pick through this carefully to avoid hazards
* The same spot after the garbage has been bagged
* Lots of garbage was hung from trees which had to be collected as well
* Another heap being collected by the other volunteers
* A look at the clean-up effort from the road
* The High Country Riders with horse and mule volunteers
* We pause to review the Morris Fire burnover at San Gabriel Dam
* Across the water retention facility we look at the Morris Fire burnover
* Along the highway at Morris Fire, some sctions burned, others did not

Site map is at: Crystal Lake site map
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This web site is not operated or maintained by the US Forest Service, and the USFS does not have any responsibility for the contents of any page provided on the http://CrystalLake.Name/ web site. Also this web site is not connected in any way with any of the volunteer organizations that are mentioned in various web pages, including the San Gabriel Mountains Trailbuilders (SGMTBs) or the Angeles Volunteers Association (AVA.) This web site is privately owned and operated. Please note that information on this web page may be inaccurate.

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